We must prepare supply chains for future COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics

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The author attends the GS1 Global Forum in Brussels, Belgium in February 2020. © David Plas / GS1, used with permission.
The author attends the GS1 Global Forum in Brussels, Belgium in February 2020. © David Plas/GS1, used with permission.

Nothing would undermine delivery of successful COVID-19 (coronavirus) vaccines and therapeutic treatments faster than the emergence of fake vaccines.  Health development and financing institutions already have their work cut out to raise public awareness and acceptance of these potential pandemic ending-solutions. The proliferation of falsified versions in marketplaces around the world would make the job even harder. The likely diversion of these highly prized commodities away from priority or underserved recipients would also be tragic. COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics could be the catalyst to step up efforts around medicine traceability, but supply chains need to make fast progress. 

Coordinating the global health supply chain

The World Bank hosted Global Steering Committee for Quality Assurance of Health Products (GSC) represents a voluntary coordination platform for public and private sectors to work together on key supply chain integrity issues. COVID-19 has only heightened the need for these collective efforts, as shipping and manufacturing disruptions have led to a spike in falsified medicines in many countries. Now, on the verge of distributing a highly prized commodity – a COVID-19 vaccine – the GSC is bringing together key partners to search for solutions.

The Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator is a global coalition aimed at the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines. Protecting supply chain integrity is an important aspect of the broader multi-agency effort. One important tool for enhancing supply chain transparency and efficiency for medicines is a system of traceability built around tracking serialized products throughout the shipping and distribution process.  Numerous countries and regions have established systems to track and trace medical products from the manufacturer down to the end user. Most low- and middle-income countries need to catch up, with COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics presenting an urgent need for action around medicines traceability.

Making vaccines traceable is key

Just last September, Nigeria hosted the African GS1 Healthcare Conference in which 25 African countries pledged to prioritize medicines traceability. The success of a global medicines traceability system depends on countries utilizing an agreed format for product labeling, and the not-for-profit GS1 organization  based in Brussels has developed the most widely utilized standard. Africa’s embrace of the GS1 standards means that patients will benefit from knowing where the medicines they consume come from and whether they are authentic products.  

The Global Steering Committee at the World Bank is working closely with UNICEF, GAVI, and other leading medicines procurement and distribution agencies to reimagine a pathway to traceability that recognizes the extreme urgency of the pandemic. The Bank’s longstanding coordination of the African Medicines Regulatory Harmonization program will play an important role, as medicine regulators must facilitate and streamline critical approvals needed at the country level. 

The GSC’s Private Sector Advisory Council includes leading vaccine manufacturers and companies with a track record of implementing medicines traceability systems in developed countries. This cooperation between global health financing institutions and the private sector offers the technical knowhow while safeguarding equitable access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics for those who need them most.

A new sense of urgency

As the world anxiously awaits the arrival of effective COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics, we need a new sense of urgency in preparing to protect these precious commodities . Supply chain integrity may seem like an obscure part of the pandemic-ending effort, but it is a critical component of vaccine acceptance globally. Protecting COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics from falsification and diversion will require cutting edge traceability solutions, public-private collaboration, and national-level support. Emergency responses require pragmatic, agile, and well-coordinated action. Done right, the COVID-19 response will leave a lasting legacy for safer and more efficient medicine supply chains in many countries. 

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Authors

Tom Woods

Chairman of the Global Steering Committee for Quality Assurance of Health Products

Join the Conversation

Steve Burgess
July 28, 2021

Great blog post, Tom. I have been worrying about exactly these same issues and agree with your main thrust. Before we know it, the vaccines will start to circulate, and fake or substandard products entering the chain could have disastrous impacts, directly and indirectly. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and wisdom on this one.

Thomas T. Kubic
July 28, 2021

Well stated Tom. Thank you for your leadership of the Global Steering Committee. Its recognition of the absolute necessity for a secure supply chain and the steps already taken, will result in the delivery of safe and effective vaccines once developed.