Collaboration key to supply chain security, says UK vaccine procurer head

COVID-19 highlighted issues with supply chains and exposed the best way to manage risk is through collaboration, says head of supply chain for the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce.

Globally, various countries struggled with a secure supply chain during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the UK, through the advent of the Vaccine Taskforce, was able to facilitate the path towards the introduction of a COVID-19 vaccine in the UK and its global distribution

Rivals came together through unforeseen collaborations such as Merck & Co. (known as MSD outside of North America) and Johnson & Johnson’s (J&Js) partnership formed in March 2021 to manufacture and provide a fill-finish services for the latter’s vaccine.

Sue Williams, head of supply chain for the Vaccine Taskforce .

“The best way to manage risk is through visibility and transparency to identify the risks and opportunities and then collaboration is a key route to risk mitigation,” Sue Williams, head of supply chain for the Vaccine Taskforce told BioProcess Insider.

Williams was keen to show that there is power in partnerships, saying that while supply chains proved challenging to manage as traditionally companies have operated in isolation, “there was a definite shift in a number of areas of companies working together but we were still having to be reactive rather than proactive in a number of areas.

Household name partnerships such as Pfizer and BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca hit the headlines, as well as Moderna, who teamed up with various contract development manufacturing organizations (CDMOs) including Catalent, which dedicated a high-speed vial filling line to Moderna in April 2021 and French pharma giant Sanofi used its site in Ridgefield, New Jersey to fill-finish up to 200 million doses of the vaccine. Recipharm also provided fill-finish services in France for Moderna.

While its clear collaborations occurred, Williams told us they were “still having to be reactive rather than proactive in a number of areas,” and moving forward “even if the pharma companies don’t want to work with their peers, there is still plenty of opportunity to optimize the supply chains by working with their suppliers and service providers. There are opportunities to increase efficiency, reduce cost, and drive-up service levels if companies align and collaborate.”

Supply chain struggles

Williams said that there was a struggle streamlining the UK’s supply chain due to its fragmented structure as various materials were being produced in different locations from production.

“The vaccine suppliers were a mix of integrated large pharma companies at one end of the scale and small biotech companies and university researchers at the other end, with contract manufacturing organisations adding manufacturing capacity and capability,” said Williams.

“Due to the nature of the pandemic and the vaccine development process, a portfolio of vaccines was chosen to spread the risk of delays in development or low levels of efficacy in any one vaccine. This resulted in a very complex supply chain with multiple geographies and material/equipment flows with a very dynamic risk profile.”

The issue of supply chain consistency was not a geographically isolated incident, and in 2021 an industry survey from Informa Connect reported that the COVID-19 pandemic was still affecting supply chains.

Last month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued draft guidance to tackle supply chain disruptions, saying that implementing risk management principles should be applied throughout the drug supply chain to help mitigate the risk of shortages.