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September 28, 2021

As the world reels under the pandemic-induced crisis, the COVID-19 vaccine has been the topic of discussion globally. According to The Wall Street Journal, more than 150 vaccines have been developed by the end of 2020. With vaccine rollouts already underway, many countries are adopting a phased approach to vaccinating their citizens. While making vaccines available for over seven billion people globally is a gargantuan task, the complexity involved in setting up the supply chain is equally daunting. The process industry plays a key role in ensuring the availability of vaccines – from the right polymer materials for filters to the bioreactor bags for virus cultivation and the specialized vials and syringes required to maintain the stability and efficacy of the vaccine in various environments.

Global demand for COVID-19 vaccination products

According to a report by Business Today, 8 to 10 billion syringes are required to vaccinate the global population with a single dose, excluding booster shots. While the typical demand of syringes is close to 16 billion, only 5 to 10% (about one billion on average) are used for vaccines and immunization campaigns. Additionally, there would be an estimated requirement of about three billion vials for storing and transporting the vaccine for the global population, the report stated. This sudden spike in demand for syringes creates several challenges: for instance, in the raw materials supply chain, recycling is difficult for most critical ingredients due to safety considerations. As a secondary impact, we envisage a shortage of similar materials used in other industrial applications in sectors already operating at high capacity utilization rates. For example, polypropylene (PP) is the main raw material used to make disposable plastic syringes and also the bioreactor bag for vaccine production. Any shortages in polypropylene production will hamper the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain. Because of its growing demand, the global capacity of PP is projected to increase from 199 million metric tons (MMT) in 2020 to 230 MMT by 2023, at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.9%, according to Statista. Even then, it is not sufficient to meet the rise in demand for both traditional industries and the new demand for the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain.

Vaccine production and delivery requirements

According to this news report, a vaccine manufacturing plant uses about 9,000 materials sourced from suppliers spread across 25 to 30 countries. The manufacturers developing and producing the vaccine must comply with strict regulatory standards – local, federal, and other governing authorities. Let’s explore the finer details of what vaccine development and distribution entails.

Making a vaccine requires bioreactor bags, filters, and a host of other materials. A bioreactor bag is used for cultivating the viruses needed for the vaccine. It is manufactured using chemicals like polyethylene, polyvinyl acetate, and polypropylene. Filters are used to clarify, purify, and sterilize the vaccine after the virus is cultivated. These are manufactured using polymers like polyethylene and nylon. Any shortage or unavailability of these process industry chemicals can seriously impact the efforts of vaccinating the global population at the earliest. 

The delivery and inoculation of vaccine requires syringes, glass vials and stoppers. This, along with the cold chain requirements, can pose significant challenges for both demand and logistics. A key issue that may arise is the availability of lower dead volume syringes to inject the vaccine. Polypropylene and ethylene oxide are the major materials used to manufacture the vials and syringes. With each vial carrying six to seven doses of the vaccine, lower dead volume syringes play a crucial role during delivery, as they can reduce wastage by 16% (seven doses per vial instead of six).

To prevent the virus from spreading further across a larger population, governments, organizations, and other stakeholder must meet the increased demand for vaccines as quickly as possible. Raw materials providers, component manufacturers, and vaccine-producing pharmaceutical companies need to cooperate to allocate greater capacity to manufacture these materials, reposition inventory to match downstream production needs, and perform other essential tasks. 

Final thoughts

All vaccines provide effective protection for a fixed duration, and booster shots at a regular frequency may be required for continued protection. The process and chemical industry organizations that supply these materials should be prepared for a global demand spike. The challenges around procuring the required raw materials, planning the capacity, and managing the outbound logistics can be addressed through cross-functional collaboration within the company and across the value chain. Additionally, organizations should monitor vaccine-related developments regularly, to manage the demand variations of these materials and build a responsive supply chain.

Rahil Mylapally is a business analyst with TCS’ Manufacturing business unit. He has over seven years of experience in providing business and IT consulting services for Fortune 500 customers. His areas of expertise include business and industry analysis, process transformation, supply chain management, and data analytics. Rahul holds a Master’s degree in supply chain management from the National Institute of Industrial Engineering (NITIE), Mumbai, India.

Prudhvi Kumar V is an assistant consultant with TCS’ Manufacturing business unit. He has over seven years of experience working with TCS’ customers in designing transformative solutions for supply chain management. He has worked on multiple projects for global enterprises from both discrete and continuous manufacturing. He holds a Master’s degree in supply chain and operations from NITIE, Mumbai, India and a Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the NIT, Jalandhar, India.

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