Healthcare Distributors Playing Central Role As COVID-19 Vaccination Campaign Accelerates

March 01, 2021

We have reached another pivotal moment in the fight against COVID-19: the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate for emergency use. With demand for vaccines currently outpacing supply, the addition of a third candidate is welcome news for Americans. Most importantly, a one-dose option that only requires refrigeration will provide greater flexibility in delivering vaccines to more individuals, including those in underserved and rural areas, with the ability to scale up production exponentially as we move into the spring and summer months.

The success of this immunization campaign will require a heightened level of engagement across the entire healthcare supply chain in close coordination with federal, state and local governments. With President Biden promising all Americans access to a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of July, we must move forward swiftly, but efficiently. At an event HDA co-hosted with The Hill in late January, I underscored an important point: the country’s healthcare distributors stand ready to answer the call and support the Biden-Harris administration in this historic undertaking.


Distributor Efforts to Date

As the momentum builds in this national campaign, it is important to review where we are today. I am proud of the central role HDA members have played in played in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics.

As the centralized distributor of vaccines through the federal government, McKesson began picking, packing and shipping the Moderna vaccine and its ancillary supply kits on December 20. Further, McKesson announced on March 1 that their team has mobilized to distribute Johnson & Johnson vaccines and supplies. (While the Pfizer vaccine is being shipped outside of the government’s delivery infrastructure, McKesson is providing the supply kits associated with that vaccine.) Most orders are shipped within the same day or within 24 hours to specified provider facilities, and the company is working with a range of partners to manage vaccine deliveries nationwide.

Other HDA member companies also continue to step up to this challenge in many ways. For example, Morris & Dickson is employing their logistics expertise to support the delivery of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to communities across the state of Louisiana — with customers receiving what they need in 12 hours or less. Additionally, Cardinal Health is working with the Ohio Department of Health to support COVID-19 vaccine distribution throughout the state. AmerisourceBergen also currently serves as a centralized distributor for all COVID-19 related therapeutics approved for emergency use authorization, as directed by the Department of Health and Human Services.


Administration Catching Up, But More Supply Coming

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as of March 1, nearly 97 million doses have been distributed and 75 million doses have been administered.

The effort to distribute and administer millions of vaccine doses is a testament to the efficacy of public- and private-sector partnerships in combating COVID-19. As AmerisourceBergen Chairman, President and CEO Steve Collis recently said, "The distribution — meaning the physical logistics of getting COVID-19 vaccines from manufacturers to states — has been a success."

Steve’s assessment of the distribution function is accurate. However, the number of administered vaccinations continues to lag. Despite the hard work and dedication from partners across the pharmaceutical supply chain and government, there remains a slight disparity between available vaccines delivered to sites of care by distributors and actual vaccinations administered, though that gap is closing.

More can be done; especially as additional vaccine supplies are made available. If you add up the total inventory procured by the federal government — including the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines as well as the AstraZeneca candidate (assuming this latter option is authorized by FDA) — approximately 1 billion doses will be made available over the next few months. Distributing nearly 1 billion doses is an entirely different proposition than the 97 million vaccines distributed to date, reinforcing the true scale of the challenge ahead of us.

Healthcare distributors, serving as a vital link between 1,400 manufacturers and more than 180,000 providers, have the capacity, infrastructure and customer networks that enable them to move billions of products, including vaccines, prescription medicines, OTCs, medical supplies and PPE every single day. We stand ready to do more. As the country looks to solve the greatest logistics challenge of our time, it is important that the federal government look to rely on the traditional, commercial supply chain even more, to help ensure available vaccines make their way to every American.


Activating Trading Partners

As we plan for the availability of more vaccines, additional administration sites — traditional and non-traditional — will need to come online quickly. HDA supports the Biden administration’s plan to “fully activate pharmacies across the country” as a central part of its strategy. HDA members AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson, among others, are serving as network administrators in the recently launched Federal Retail Pharmacy Program for COVID-19 Vaccination. Their participation enables them to place orders with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on behalf of their independent, small chain and long-term care pharmacies.

On any given day, HDA members assist their pharmacy trading partners in many more ways than warehousing inventory and delivering medicines, healthcare products and supplies from point A to point B. In fact, healthcare distributors are the only entity in the healthcare supply chain that manage an “end-to-end process,” supporting pharmacy partners with administrative and financial services that go beyond delivering a medical package to the front counter.


Looking Forward

Distributors’ integral role is set to grow as rising demand for vaccinations requires a heightened level of engagement across the entire pharmaceutical supply chain in close coordination with the public sector. HDA and our 36 distributor members remain steadfast in our commitment to serving as a resource to the new administration, federal and state authorities, and healthcare providers across the country as we work in partnership to implement President Biden’s plan and bring all forces to bear in the fight against COVID-19 in the U.S.

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