The largest vaccine effort in U.S. history is under way, and it’s happening with jaw-dropping speed. The distribution of the new Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine began December 13. By December 14, healthcare workers across the United States were rolling up their sleeves to receive the first shots. The rollout, known as Operation Warp Speed, is a complex operation involving the world’s leading carriers, a global retailer, two pharmacy chains, government bodies at all levels, healthcare providers, manufacturers, and many other organizations. Businesses can learn a lot from it.
- The goal of Operation Warp Speed is to produce and deliver 300 million doses of safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines. The operation is being overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The operation was cleared on December 11 when the Food and Drug Administration authorized Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine for emergency use. By December 13, UPS and Federal Express trucks began transporting initial shipments from Pfizer distribution centers.
- The first shipments are to be distributed to healthcare workers and other higher-risk individuals such as nursing home residents and workers.
- The process involves, among other things, Pfizer personnel taking five-dose glass vials of vaccine out of subzero freezers and packing them into the company’s specially designed shipping container. Each vaccine shipping box weighs about 80 pounds and holds up to 4,875 doses of vaccine. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine must be stored at minus 94 degrees, which requires special freezers most commonly found at large medical centers.
- Pfizer, however, does not distribute the vaccine personally. Delivery requires carriers UPS and FedEx to distribute the vaccines directly to healthcare facilities and to CVS, Walgreen’s, and Walmart for distribution. Most Americans live within a few miles of these large chains, and all of them have experience administering flu shots.
- A total of 636 locations were receiving the vaccine the week of December 13.
Why This News Matters to Businesses
- Operation Warp Speed demonstrates how a complex ecosystem can quickly form to operate with no margin for error. Supply chains everywhere are complex and fraught with disruption during the pandemic. And yet, Operation Warp Speed is up and running already. The distribution requires a staggering number of parties to coordinate. The ecosystem involves, among other parties, Pfizer, global carriers, a network of thousands of pharmacy outlets, hospitals, elder care facilities, a manufacturer of specialty containers for transporting the vaccine safely, U.S. airports, technology providers such as Microsoft, governmental bodies, airlines, and many others. How has this all happened so fast? For Operation Warp Speed to even get off the ground, competitors have needed to collaborate. Businesses have needed to rapidly test and learn how to transport many moving parts, including vials and synergies, in special containers. And, the ecosystem has operated in highly decentralized fashion – there is no room for bureaucratic snafus with lives on the line.
- Moncef Slaoui, the chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, said, “We have rehearsed, tested, did mock deliveries, every single step of the process in order to make sure that we understand how it’s working. We also have made sure, for instance, that the first 2.9 million doses of vaccines are being distributed over three days in order to make sure that if there are any adjustments we can make, we have an opportunity to make them.”
- Operation Warp Speed also offers a lesson in agility. CVS and Walgreens have the job of distributing the vaccines to 15,600 nursing homes and 29,000 assisted-living communities. Since 78 percent of Americans live within five miles of a Walgreens, and 82 percent live within 10 miles of a CVS, these two chains play a crucial role in agile distribution. To pull off the deliveries, pharmacy workers are expected to come to nursing homes and other adult-care facilities to deliver and administer the vaccines to residents and staff. Since the vaccines must be kept at much colder temperatures than other types of vaccines, the workers need to operate quickly. Both CVS and Walgreens have acted quickly to train their workers, hire more, and become resourceful, even reportedly relying on employees’ personal cars to deliver the vaccines.
- In addition, Operation Warp Speed demonstrates how Walmart’s evolution into being a healthcare player new positions the company well. Walmart has been approved to use thousands of Walmart and Sam’s Clubs stores to administer the vaccine. The company is well suited for this role. Walmart operates a trained network of pharmacists across 5,000 Walmart and Sam’s Club locations. Walmart has already mastered supply management, including the crucial last mile of distribution. By sensing and responding to consumers’ needs for more outpatient care, Walmart has prepared for this moment.
- The operation also underscores how crucial real-time technology is for effective supply-chain management. For instance, UPS relies affixes each box of vaccines with a special label with a Bluetooth-enabled radio inside. As Wes Wheeler, president of UPS Healthcare, told NPR, “[A]s soon as these facilities’ packages arrive in one of our facilities — doesn’t matter whether it’s this one here or any of our hubs around the country — we can actually see it. And so it gives you an instant read on exactly where it is. So in terms of security, we have eyes on these packages the whole way through. We can see them anytime, anywhere within 10 feet.” The technology was developed earlier in 2020 – just in time for a historic rollout. The lesson here is that UPS was already innovating with technology to track packages, and that innovation serves Operation Warp Speed well.
What Businesses Should Do
- Monitor the rollout and learn. The rollout will not be perfect. There will be bumps in the road even with this high-risk operation.
- Pay close attention to how CVS and Walgreens manage the vaccine’s distribution in highly decentralized and agile fashion. The rollout is just beginning, and in coming weeks they businesses will make course corrections as they, too, test and learn in a high-stake environment.
- Watch for how carriers deploy technology to provide real-time visibility. Lack of real-time insight has hampered supply chains across all businesses during the pandemic. UPS’s tracking technology could provide the kind of breakthrough all businesses need going forward.
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