Five Things to Know: Pharmaceutical Distributors and Vaccine Distribution

October 15, 2020

The successful development of COVID-19 vaccines will mark a groundbreaking step in our fight against the pandemic. However, the massive demand for approved vaccines and therapies as they come to market will require extensive coordination across the pharmaceutical supply chain and with the public sector.

The federal government’s decision to leverage the logistics expertise of HDA members to distribute COVID-19 vaccines upon approval is a critical first step in ensuring these breakthrough medicines will be distributed safely and efficiently to point-of-care sites across the country. The decision reaffirms the importance of public-private collaboration and the critical role it has played, and will continue to do so, in our nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we approach that important milestone, HDA recently released guiding principles for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. The principles reaffirm the industry’s commitment to employing well-established distribution networks and expertise, securing the vaccine supply, partnering with federal and state governments and maintaining transparency and communication throughout the distribution process.

Here are five things you should know about pharmaceutical distributors and vaccine distribution.


1. Distributors have the infrastructure and relationships to deliver medicines and healthcare products across the country — from large cities to rural communities.

As the logistics experts of healthcare, distributors are uniquely suited to play a critical role in the effort to transport vaccines to where they are most needed. Our industry has spent years building these networks by maintaining strong relationships with approximately 1,300 pharmaceutical manufacturers and more than 180,000 provider partners across America.

Our network of technologically advanced distribution warehouses, strategically located throughout the country, allows distributors to deliver medicines quickly, safely and reliably. Sophisticated ordering systems and efficient shipping networks ensure that all communities have access to vital new treatments. HDA members regularly deliver medicines and healthcare products to hospitals, pharmacies, provider offices, nursing homes and other healthcare facilities located in remote rural communities and busy urban centers.


2. Distributors have experience transporting specialty products, safely and securely, and possess unique storage and transportation capabilities.

Pharmaceutical distributors have extensive experience and capability to manage the storage, transportation and security of vaccines, which will be urgently needed given the nature of the products and the attention new vaccines will draw.

Distributors are uniquely prepared to handle complex storage and transportation requirements for any new treatments. Many of the vaccine candidates will require precise temperature controls, and distributors regularly employ cold chain shipping for specialty drugs already on the market. The industry has invested heavily in cutting-edge temperature-controlled supply chain protocols to ensure that products are stored, handled and shipped at the required temperature.


3. Distributors regularly work with manufacturers to help bring new treatments and cures to market.

In the lead-up to product launch, distributors help ensure:

  • Inventories are pre-positioned in the supply chain to help facilitate ready access to providers;
  • Drugs are available to providers as swiftly as possible;
  • Treatments and vaccines can reach facilities designated under each state’s emergency preparedness plan; and,
  • Distribution plans comply with existing federal and state regulations.
  • HDA members stand ready to leverage this experience and maximize the efficiencies of the existing private sector distribution system to support efforts to deliver treatments and vaccines to where they are most needed.

4. Distributors already deliver a range of vaccines from the seasonal flu to more complex immunizations.

More than 150 million doses of the flu vaccine were produced and distributed during the 2017–2018 flu season. HDA members play a central role in delivering these products to doctor’s offices, health centers, pharmacies and other dispensing sites. Additionally, many distributors provide resources to help pharmacists and providers with ordering, inventory management and other support services. In addition to the flu, distributors regularly deliver immunizations for Hepatitis B, HPV, pneumococcal and shingles.

Further, distributors have partnered with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to handle logistics and distribution for the Vaccines for Children program. As one of the CDC's largest public-private partnerships, Vaccines for Children provides critical vaccines, including measles, rubella and chickenpox, to children in underserved communities at no cost.


5. Distributors have experience working with federal, state and local governments during emergencies.

HDA members have long-standing relationships with government agencies and have partnered with state and federal officials to facilitate the distribution of vaccines and pharmaceuticals to accommodate surging demand following public health emergencies and natural disasters.

Following the development of the H1N1 and Ebola vaccines, distributors played a critical role in bringing these urgently needed treatments to providers and patients. In both instances, distributors worked in tight coordination with the federal government to distribute products to ensure swift availability and access.

While distributors have the experience and expertise to support the critical task of bringing new COVID-19 vaccines and treatments to market, the unprecedented scale of the crisis means that strong coordination and direction from the public sector on where to direct new medicines will be vital in the next phase of the nationwide response effort. HDA has urged the government to provide detailed guidance to pharmaceutical distributors on how these essential medicines should be distributed, and it will be crucial for federal and state authorities and public health experts to work together to designate priority populations, localities and eligible facilities.

HDA and its members stand ready to work with our manufacturing partners, providers across the country and the government to make sure American patients have access to COVID-19 vaccines once they are deemed safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration.