While President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced that South Africa’s Covid-19 vaccine strategy is well underway, with 20 million doses to be delivered in the first half of the year, this is just the first step, and effective supply chain management will be the key ingredient for a successful vaccine roll out, according to SAPICS, Southern Africa’s Professional Body for Supply Chain Management.

“Distributing the Covid-19 vaccine to millions of South Africans will be one of the supply chain and logistics profession’s greatest endeavours ever. The ultimate success of South Africa’s vaccine programme will depend on effective, robust and resilient supply chains and skilled, suitably qualified supply chain professionals,” says SAPICS president Keabetswe Mpane.

“The challenges include the vaccine’s short-shelf-life, cold chain distribution requirements and safety concerns for the workers distributing it. Some of the Covid-19 vaccines require ultra-cold storage,” Mpane notes. “Pfizer’s vaccine, for example, must be kept especially cold – frozen at -70 degrees Celsius. It will reportedly require ultracold freezers or dry ice for refilling specialised delivery containers.”

President Ramaphosa has not specified which vaccine South Africa has secured for delivery; but Mpane stresses that the doses will need to get to hospitals, clinics and healthcare facilities around the country quickly and with their safety and efficacy uncompromised by improper handling, storage and transport. The last mile poses the greatest supply chain challenge, she states, explaining that this is the vaccine’s journey from centralised distribution centres to clinics and finally to patients.

“Focused manpower development will be critical for the successful last mile distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine. We need to consider the knowledge and skills of everyone involved in every stage of the vaccine’s transit, from the storage and distribution personnel to ancillary workers like truck drivers. Everyone handling the vaccine during its lifecycle must be trained in the basics of its storage and temperature control requirements, to ensure that nothing is left to chance.

“South Africa has never needed professional, suitably qualified supply chain professionals more than we do right now,” Mpane stresses, adding that the role played by SAPICS, in promoting professionalism and community in African supply chains, and in delivering education, training, networking and knowledge sharing opportunities for supply chain professionals, is more important than ever.

In addition to distributing the vaccine itself, there are secondary supply chains that will be vital, too, she asserts. “Think of the millions of syringes needed to administer the vaccine. We will need as many syringes as doses of vaccine. We will need safety boxes for used syringes. Nurses giving the vaccine shots will need more alcohol wipes, masks and gloves.

Supply chains that were stretched and strained during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic with the distribution of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) may not be ready for the vaccine distribution challenges.

“While all eyes – and hopes – are on the Covid-19 vaccine, we must also ensure that we do not overlook the other important treatment programmes that must continue. The supply chains and professionals responsible for the distribution of life-saving drugs to fight HIV, malaria and tuberculosis are already under immense pressure and the critical work that they do cannot be compromised. Youth capacity building and skills development to build a pipeline of new talent and enhance the performance of healthcare supply chains is a priority for SAPICS and our partners.

SAPICS is a Coalition member of ‘People that Deliver’, a global initiative that aims to improve health outcomes by promoting sustainable workforce excellence in health supply chain management. A partnership between SAPICS and the International Association of Public Health Logisticians (IAPHL) was established in 2020 to promote professionalism and community in South African public health supply chains with the objective of improving the availability of healthcare supplies and live-saving medicines, including the Covid-19 vaccine.

“When the vaccine arrives in South Africa, the quality of our supply chain professionals could mean the difference between life and death,” Mpane concludes.