Conquering the “Last Mile” in COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

This is one of four reports from the December Brazda Breakfast Briefing. Click here for a feed of reports from these events

On December 18, the FDA approved Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine for emergency use in the United States. The move makes Moderna’s vaccine the second to reach the American public. Now that the scientific community has developed multiple breakthrough vaccines to halt the coronavirus pandemic, we face an equal challenge: getting them safely to immunization sites around the world and in the arms of people.

Distributing the vaccines presents a logistical challenge: both vaccines need two doses spaced several weeks apart, they have specific temperature requirements to remain effective and once thawed they only last a short period before they need to be administered.

Industry leaders, however, aren’t fazed by these challenges. “I’m confident in our process,” said Jay McHarg, CEO of AeroSafe Global, during the Alliance for Health Policy’s Brazda Breakfast briefing on December 15. The briefing, sponsored by APCO, brought together leaders in the healthcare industry to discuss the vaccine distribution effort and share solutions their organizations have developed.

AeroSafe Global has solved one of the most critical steps in the distribution process: the “last mile,” where vaccine doses are transported to locations like pharmacies, doctors’ offices and clinics where they will be administered to patients.

AeroSafe Global’s cold-chain solutions keep vaccine doses at the precise temperatures required and, because of their modular design, are the only available solution that can easily scale from moving a maximum of 5,000 doses per unit to under 100 for small communities. Once the distribution logistics are established, AeroSafe’s solutions are also reusable, allowing the company to replenish the boxes with additional doses and dry ice as needed.

As McHarg explained, AeroSafe works directly with the vaccine manufacturers and pharmacies to manage “primary distribution” from biopharmaceutical facilities to large hospital systems and medical depots. It then provides customized solutions for distribution from those locations to smaller administration sites like pharmacies, then on to nursing homes and assisted living facilities until later when the vaccine campaign shifts directly from moving the doses from the manufacturers to local immunization sites during the general vaccination phase.

While the technology behind the solutions has been time and experience tested over the last 15 years, its success requires that distributors minimize human error. “We’re asking a lot of people to step up and distribute these vaccines at unbelievable speed,” said McHarg, “so trying to reduce the confusion and complexity is obviously critical to making sure they get there safely.” To that end, each AeroSafe unit comes with a digital sensor that provides real-time data on location, temperature, humidity and even how many times the box has been opened, as well as digital instructions on how to store and administer the vaccines.

As the United States begins administering vaccines to long-term care facilities this month, AeroSafe’s solutions, like its carry cases for daily vaccine runs, will be central to the broader distribution effort. The ultimate challenge now, according to McHarg and the other experts, is not distribution logistics or technology but rather convincing enough Americans to get the vaccine when it arrives at their local doctor or pharmacy. Having a safe and effective distribution chain is a key part of instilling that confidence in the American people.

You can watch Jay McHarg’s presentation and the full briefing here.