Wharton’s Gad Allon speaks with Wharton Business Daily on SirusXM about the logistical challenges involved in distributing the COVID-19 vaccine.

The worldwide distribution of the first vaccines to fight COVID-19 comes with unique logistical challenges that will take unprecedented teamwork to carry out, said Wharton professor of operations and information management Gad Allon.

The immunization program is “probably the biggest vaccination initiative we’ve ever seen in humanity, so [it’s] definitely a major undertaking at the scale and the level of specificity needed to maintain it,” Allon said during a recent interview with the Wharton Business Daily radio show on SiriusXM. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

The first trucks to transport the vaccine in the United States rolled out of a Michigan manufacturing plant Sunday, just two days after the Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization for the drug developed by Pfizer and Germany-based BioNTech. Health care workers and nursing home residents will be given the initial batch of about 3 million doses, which must be stored at subzero temperatures. Under Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government has also purchased millions of doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. People need two doses for protection against the virus, which has killed more than 300,000 Americans so far this year.

Allon, who is director of the Jerome Fisher Program in Management and Technology at Wharton, said limited manufacturing capacity is a top concern.

“These firms don’t have enough capacity to manufacture them. Moderna can manufacture a billion a year. Pfizer can do maybe 1.3 billion a year, and they’re already reporting that they have issues even with these,” he said.

The Right People

Part of the manufacturing challenge is maintaining the proper workforce.

“How do you make sure that people have the right knowledge? You also need people available,” Allon said. “Who wants to work on the project that you know is going to be very relevant now, but might not be relevant a year from now? It’s hard to get people with the right skills to work on that if they are not already part of Pfizer, Moderna and the like. I think it might not be all that fast to get them.”

While drugmakers have been developing the vaccine since the coronavirus first emerged, the runway for execution has been relatively short. Government funding has certainly helped speed the scientific path, but it doesn’t clear supply chain hurdles, Allon said. The temperature storage requirements alone present a significant challenge for every entity along the supply chain.

Allon disagreed with the suggestion that perhaps the military should handle vaccine distribution. He said the military excels in mobilizing a high number of people in a short time period, such as getting doses to front-line workers. But widespread immunization will require a sustained, scaled effort that the military isn’t best equipped for.

“A civilian supply chain is much more structured than the military one,” Allon said.

“Who wants to work on the project that you know is going to be very relevant now, but might not be relevant a year from now?”

Future Refinements

As the first iteration of the vaccine makes its way across the world, scientists must continue to refine the drug to ensure its efficacy and coverage. The current formulation has not been tested on those under the age of 16. More research could lead to vaccines that will not require extreme cold storage, cheaper versions or other therapeutics that can help get the pandemic under control. Meanwhile, drug manufacturers have to keep working on other medicines to combat all sorts of disabling and life-threatening conditions.

“It’s not a scientific question. It’s not just an operational question or a supply chain question. It’s really a combination of all of these together,” Allon said.

Learn more: Gad Allon teaches in Wharton Executive Education’s Designing and Managing the Agile Supply Chain for the Future, a new LIVE virtual program for executives who need a supply chain that can withstand future shocks.