The challenge of vaccine distribution
A COVID-19 vaccine is essential for the country to regain some semblance of normalcy and restart an economy badly hit by this pandemic. In the Philippines, President Duterte has ordered the National Task Force Against COVID-19 to purchase an initial 60 million doses of the vaccine once available.
Assuming that our government has successfully secured the initial 60 million doses of vaccines it intends to procure, it will require considerable resources to transport and distribute those millions of vials of vaccines to their intended beneficiaries.
First of all, the vaccines require special handling. They will need an adequate and efficient cold chain system to ensure there is no spoilage. Ensuring the integrity of the cold chain system from point of origin to its eventual destination in the various regions of the country will entail not only cost, but also investment in trained personnel and proper equipment. The recent Typhoon “Rolly” illustrated the challenge posed by this critical infrastructure requirement in the distribution chain for the vaccines. During a press briefing last Nov. 2 in the aftermath of Rolly, Health Secretary Francisco Duque III raised concern on the cold chain storage of COVID-19 test specimens due to power interruptions as a result of the typhoon.
In terms of transport, it will take the equivalent of 60 Boeing 777 freighters to fly the 60 million doses to the Philippines. With the rising cost of shipping and freight rates, plans should already be put in place to ensure that the country is prepared and ready once the supply of vaccines is available. However, this is just the first stage. Once the vaccine arrives in the country, the next challenge is transporting it to other parts of the country. Do we have adequate logistical assets that also ensure the integrity of the cold chain system required to prevent spoilage of the vaccines? There are other details as well, such as storage facilities, syringes, and cooling boxes that will be used when the vaccines will be transported to vaccination centers out in the field.
The task ahead for the government is daunting, but if the challenges involved are recognized in time, then there is an opportunity to work on solutions. The appointment by President Duterte of National Task Force Against COVID-19 chief implementer Carlito Galvez Jr. as the “vaccine czar” is a step in the right direction. It is never too early to also start discussions, planning, and investment for the logistical challenge that comes next.
As early as now, the government and the private sector should start putting in place infrastructure required for the effective distribution and deployment of the vaccine to the general population.
Serious discussion and consideration should be made regarding investing in developing local production capability of syringes and other vital components of the cold chain system required for vaccine distribution. Considering that 60 million doses may just be an initial supply, and given that there is still uncertainty as to the number of vaccine doses required for an individual, there will be a continuing need for the vaccine.
Perhaps the government should also start exploring the possibility of becoming part of the production chain for the vaccine. We need to develop manufacturing local capability and self-reliance in this regard. Let us learn the lessons this pandemic has given the world and our country, and take this opportunity to take bold, strategic steps to overcome these challenges and secure the future.
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Moira G. Gallaga served three Philippine presidents as presidential protocol officer.
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