In the battle against COVID-19, the cavalry has arrived.
For many months, the world held onto a sense of hope that vaccines would turn the tide in the life-and-death struggle with coronavirus. Finally, as if on cue, society’s heroes rode into the picture, delivering a steady stream of small vials filled with the vaccines that have the potential to bring the pandemic to a finale over many episodes.
Most people recognize the names of the first two vaccines that have been approved and are being distributed to millions of Americans: the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine. In addition, vaccines from AstraZeneca, Janssen, and Novavax were in clinical trials by the end of 2020 and approaching final approval.
Notice that the common name of each vaccine is the name of the company that developed it. There is no American vaccine or Canadian vaccine or Swiss vaccine. Rather, there are pharmaceutical businesses deploying their expertise in profitable activity, potentially saving millions of lives in the process. Notice also the record-breaking speed with which these vaccines were developed. To go from the first appearance of a virus to the widespread availability of a safe vaccine in less than one year is not only unprecedented, it is a testament to the power of free enterprise to benefit society.
Less obvious, but perhaps more problematic, are the incredible logistical challenges faced by the companies providing the vaccines. The system of developing production capabilities, obtaining materials, organizing finished products, transportation, tracking – what is generally referred to as the supply chain – is massively complex. Building and operating that system for a new product is a huge challenge under the best of conditions. To do it in record time, with so many lives on the line, is monumental. Yet that is exactly what is happening.
Kevin McCormack, Northwood University associate professor of Operations and Supply Chain Management, points out that the supply chain challenges faced by vaccine producers are especially daunting. For one thing, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines must be stored at extremely cold temperatures. The Pfizer vaccine must be kept at roughly -100 degrees Fahrenheit (-70°C ± 10°C) until the last five days before the injection. This requires ultracold storage equipment that didn’t exist in enough volume to handle the vaccines being produced. Specialized transportation equipment is also required. The capacity to store, ship, and track vaccines are likely to pose the greatest limits on how quickly vaccines can be distributed. This capacity did not exist before the pandemic, it takes time to expand, and there is no justification for over-expanding when doing so wouldn’t have an impact until after it is no longer needed.
Another unique challenge, McCormack said, is deciding who gets vaccinated first. Vaccines for most diseases are produced in advance and kept on hand at hospitals, pharmacies, health departments, doctor’s offices, and similar sites. People simply show up when and where they choose to be vaccinated. The severity of COVID-19 has forced a need to prioritize recipients, then have vaccines available at the place and time when select people are ready to receive them. This system had to be built from scratch…yet another massive challenge.
Americans are fortunate to have a vibrant private sector in place to tackle these supply chain challenges. Without question, organizations that have thrived for decades in our free-market system are better suited for overcoming such challenges than any government could. Competition fosters innovation and expertise. It forces organizations to be good at what they do unless someone else puts them out of business. Then, when an unforeseen health threat creates unprecedented challenges, those organizations are able to rise to the occasion. Thankfully, that is what has happened in the battle against the coronavirus.
Supply chain challenges are likely to slow the process for several months, but eventually, everyone who wishes to be vaccinated will have the opportunity. Some people, as is their right, will choose not to be vaccinated. No one should be forced to take part in any vaccination campaign against his or her will. Individually, only you know the details of your personal situation, and how to balance them with the needs of society. Individual freedom is a fundamental American principle and a core pillar of The Northwood Idea. Another core pillar is individual responsibility. We safeguard our freedoms when we use them responsibly. In this case, that includes gathering sound information when making a decision that impacts our lives and the lives of others. In an environment of widespread distortion and disinformation, finding and understanding the facts can be a challenge. However, making such an important decision without thoughtful consideration would not be responsible.
As the pandemic wanes and life becomes more customary, we would be remiss to forget about the heroes of this story. Like in fiction, there are real characters who are ready, willing, and able to come to the rescue of those in crisis. In reality, we all play a small role, but we acknowledge and defend the heroes in this epic, real-life story. Even though we look forward to the end of this historic season, we want to ensure the champions of the story will return should another episode be written.