Thursday, October 29, 2009

H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine supply chains

The New York Times has had excellent coverage on the H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine production problems, which have resulted in shortages throughout the US with citizens clamoring for information and long lines at vaccination stations, where they can be located, assuming that any vaccine has been delivered. The article, Shortage of Vaccine Poses Political Test for Obama, emphasizes the political ramifications of the government's overoptimistic projections of vaccine availability. It also links to another article that documents the problems encountered, still ongoing, with the vaccine supply chain from the manufacturing through the distribution and delivery.The technologies of vaccine production have, for the most part, not changed over decades and require the growing of the vaccines in eggs. Yields may be quite uncertain and that was the case for the H1N1 vaccine. On top of this problem, there were insufficient dispensers available, where and when needed, for both the nasal mist variety and the inoculation one, which demonstrates not only poor planning but inadequacies in this critical needs supply chain. Vaccine producers are now an oligopoly and there are only a few firms involved in producing for the US population.

Both China and Australia have been giving their citizens the H1N1 vaccine for awhile now. It is very frustrating that in the US better emergency preparedness was not done for vaccine production and distribution. Citizens do not need the added anxiety in this economic climate.What pleases me is that some school districts have realized that closing schools may be in the best interest at this time to assist in the minimization of flu transmission and in the recovery of those who are sick. Indeed, President Obama has declared a national emergency because of the swine flu but some school districts are still reluctant to close the schools and some are not even informing parents as to the seriousness of the spread of the flu.

The US must invest in its vaccine supply chains and begin to regain its manufacturing strength and know-how. This is an issue of not only emergency preparedness, healthcare, but also one of national security.

The outstanding talk that Professor Jose Holquin-Veras gave last Friday in our Speaker Series on emergency logistics has now been made available and can be found, in pdf format, here. We thank him for trying to educate FEMA post-Katrina and we hope that others can learn before it is too late. We also extend our sincerest thanks for making his presentations slides available.

If I had the resources available I would make sure that all of the talks in our UMass Amherst INFORMS Speaker Series are videotaped and put online. Coincidentally, last May, I was invited to give a talk on global supply chains and vulnerabilities at the University of California Davis, just as the swine flu was breaking out last Spring. I decided to minimize the risk and my talk was videostreamed. It is now available online, thanks to the Institute for Transportation Studies there. It was certainly an interesting experience to give a talk to an audience thousands of miles away!

We have been conducting research on network design for such problems and have completed a study. The paper is now in the refereeing stage.