2 weeks ago

COVID-19 vaccine delivery brings unique supply chain management challenges

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, “COVID-19 Vaccine Delivery Will Challenge Cargo Airlines,” Doug Cameron, the WSJ’s deputy bureau chief in Chicago, lays out what pharmaceutical makers, cargo shipper and the entire medical services industry will face in delivering yet-to-be-approved vaccines to hospitals, medical offices and pharmacies across the United States and around the globe. Cameron’s article focuses on the air cargo segment of this specialized supply chain, which is already suffering from a shortage of planes equipped with the carefully controlled refrigeration transport and storage these vaccines will require. His findings in that segment of the vaccine supply chain raise real concerns and beg the question of what else needs to be done to ensure virtually every step in this critical health care delivery process succeeds.

Glenn Richey, Harbert Eminent Scholar and Chair of the Department of Supply Chain Management at Auburn University’s Harbert College of Business, points out that the air transport leg is only one link in this complex supply chain — and far from the most challenging. In a recent interview, Richey identifies a host of supply chain issues embedded in the forthcoming delivery of approved COVID-19 vaccines and offers insight into what needs to be done to ensure success.

Let’s start with what makes vaccines different from other cargo, even other refrigerated cargo, when it comes to ensuring the safe, reliable delivery of hundreds of millions of doses like what’s coming for COVID-19.

The refrigeration requirements for these vaccines will go beyond traditional cold shipping and storage capabilities. The most promising vaccines under development will have to be kept at an extremely low constant temperature from production to the patient in order to prevent spoiling. Experts expect there to be two temperature ranges depending on the vaccine: around freezing and minus 70 degrees Celsius. Each of these two ranges presents a significantly different challenge to transport and storage planners working to ensure the safety of vaccines delivered to health care providers and their patients. That’s number one.

Number two is that the issue of spoilage goes beyond patient safety — these vaccines are expected to be in scarce supply early on, there may not be enough to go around. With pharma executives reporting typical spoilage rates for other vaccines during transport at 5% to as much as 20% because of inadequate temperature control, getting cold storage shipping control just right is critical to the expansion of availability.

And finally, we’re talking huge volumes — Pfizer and one of their manufacturing partners, BioNTech, are among a handful of companies in advanced stages of testing their vaccine. These two companies alone are contractually committed to supplying over 450 million doses to U.S. and foreign governments once they have completed trials showing the vaccine to be safe and effective. High volume shipments of millions of doses will trim down to deliveries of 100 or less by the time they reach your local provider.

So, to be clear, it’s a whole new ball game.

So where does the transportation component of supply chain management come into all of this, and where does it rank in terms of “must do” priorities?

According to the IFPMA (International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations), the transport and storage component of the supply chain is at the top of their list of concerns. The IFPMA recently reported that optimization of supply chain is extremely important to reduce the cold chain footprint, limit waste, and increase vaccination coverage and safety. And the public’s trust in these vaccines may be eroded if people fear the vaccines have been mishandled. So, this is a uniquely challenging endeavor.

In his article, the WSJ’s Doug Cameron focuses on the air cargo phase of the vaccine delivery process, commenting on everything being done to ensure high volume quantities of approved vaccines get to major airports and the refrigeration storage facilities being built nearby to hold them. But that’s just the first leg of transport, right? What happens to these vaccines once they land?

That’s correct — and ensuring delivery through that first leg is no small feat. But pharmaceutical companies and their shippers are experienced in this, and they appear to be building contingency plans for the bulk transport and storage capabilities necessary to get vaccines into large metropolitan areas and even to regional airports that serve surrounding populations. It is the next phase of the distribution process where it can get tricky — on the ground. From long-haul truckers to short-route delivery vans, fleets with specialized refrigeration capabilities will have to be allocated to get vaccines to where they are needed: hospitals, medical offices and even drug stores like CVS and Walgreens.

Let’s start with long-haul truckers, those with refrigerated semi tractor-trailers—“reefer trucks,” as they’re called—are they in as high demand as refrigerated air cargo planes?

I’d say perhaps even higher. For one thing, reefer trucks are already in tight supply due to the shifts in ground transportation of produce and other foods during COVID-19. There simply aren’t enough to meet demand, especially over the time frame when the first vaccines are expected to become available—the coming holiday season. The growth of e-commerce—already on a steep ramp before the pandemic—has scooped up capacity from retailers struggling from severe declines in brick-and-mortar foot traffic. Savvy businesses have already worked to reserve ground shipping capacity for the next three months, just when vaccine makers are expected to begin delivery.

And truck manufacturers are responding to the coming uptick in demand. FTR Transportation Intelligence, which tracks orders of semis and trailers, recently reported a tremendous uptick in orders. According to FTR, “Dry van orders were particularly robust, with refrigerated vans also displaying strength…Backlogs are expected to rise to near pre-pandemic levels.” While these recent orders are encouraging, deliveries of this new capacity are at least four months out.

What about local delivery fleets, those serving the “last mile” leg needed to reach smaller medical facilities and drug stores—how equipped are major delivery providers like FedEx, UPS and even the US Postal Service to provide the tightly monitored delivery of cold chain vaccines to all these points of care?

That’s going to be complex as well. Think of the sheer number of certified refrigeration units that will need to be manufactured, purchased, delivered and brought into operation by a wide variety of regional and local shippers—that alone will be a challenge. Then consider all the processes and procedures that will need to be put into place—how often are the vaccine shipments tested to ensure vitality and sterility? Who is responsible for ensuring the chain isn’t broken—and if it is, who is liable? All the large shippers have access to specialized liability insurance to cover these circumstances, but smaller shippers may not, further compounding the coming squeeze.

That all sounds ominous, are all these efforts bound to fail? Can nothing be done?

No, there’s still time to act. But it will likely take an all-hands-on-deck, tightly coordinated effort by federal, state and local government working hand in hand with private industry to pull it off. From what I’ve read, some of that is already happening through Operation Warp Speed.

What advice would you give the members of Operation Warp Speed as the plan for the coming roll-out of vaccines?

I assume the members of Operation Warp Speed are pulling together the very best in pharmaceutical development and delivery and are well into their planning process. Among the “advice” I would give them would include the following major considerations and steps:

  • Map it out — How many vaccines need to go where, when and by which routes and carriers? Prioritizing the most vulnerable—doctors, nurses, hospital staff and other first responders—will be key, and documenting the successes and failures of the initial roll-out to them before ramping up volume shipments to patients themselves can help refine best practices going forward.
  • Reserve space now — It is better to have sufficient capacity contracted now rather than to wait until a more definitive estimate of vaccine availability emerges and cold storage capacity is harder to find. It is not a matter of “if” but “when.”
  • Engage Defense Department and other government logistics expertise — The military has decades of proven expertise getting medical supplies into some of the most forbidding places on earth, surely those skills, procedures and equipment can serve a valuable role in the delivery of these vaccines. FEMA, too, has a place in this process—they have extraordinary capabilities to act in a crisis like the one we face in the coming months. These resources are typically called upon in an emergency—and this pandemic certainly counts as one.
  • Finally, tap into American ingenuity — we lead the world in medical device technology, and our businesses have the ability to create new products and services to meet the needs of cold chain vaccine delivery, to pivot design skills and manufacturing capacity of new technologies, new methodologies. Auto manufacturers and others responded to the need for ventilators, we can do it again with cold storage and transport.

(Courtesy of Auburn University)

2 hours ago

Auburn trustee, Alabama native reportedly being considered as Biden’s Defense secretary

According to a report, U.S. Army General Lloyd J. Austin (Ret.) is under consideration to lead the Department of Defense under a Biden administration.

Axios on Friday reported that former Vice President Joe Biden has placed Austin on a shortlist to be the next DoD secretary.

This comes after the Trump administration began the formal transition process through the General Services Administration.

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President Donald J. Trump tweeted earlier this week that he still believes he will be found to have won the 2020 general election following ongoing legal challenges.

“I believe we will prevail!” he said. “Nevertheless, in the best interest of our Country, I am recommending that [the GSA head] and her team do what needs to be done with regard to initial protocols, and have told my team to do the same.”

Regardless, Biden is proceeding on the assumption that he is the president-elect, and on Tuesday he unveiled much of his national security team:

Secretary of State: Tony Blinken
National Security adviser: Jake Sullivan
Director of National Intelligence: Avril Haines
Department of Homeland Security Secretary: Alejandro Mayorkas
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: Linda Thomas-Greenfield
Special presidential envoy on climate: John Kerry

Notably absent from this list was a secretary of Defense nominee.

Axios on Friday explained that “[Michele] Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden’s comfort level — have come into play.”

This follows U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), a top Biden ally who was viewed as key in Biden winning the Democratic nomination for president this year, and other prominent Black Democrats already publicly lobbying for Biden to do better when it comes to diversity among cabinet selections.

Austin would be the first Black DoD secretary in American history.

He currently serves on the Auburn University board of trustees and was born in Mobile, Alabama.

After a nearly 41-year decorated military career, Austin retired in 2016 as a four-star general. Some of his former posts include service as the commander of U.S. Central Command, commander of the Combined Forces in Iraq and Syria, and as the 33rd vice chief of staff of the Army.

Austin is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and holds master’s degrees from Auburn and Webster University. He has received the Lifetime Achievement Award from Auburn, and his wife, Charlene, is also an Auburn graduate.

Additionally, the retired general currently serves on the board of directors for Raytheon Technologies and Nucor, both of which have large Alabama presences.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

5 hours ago

‘Rivals’ Tuscaloosa and Auburn are shaping Alabama’s future

Tuscaloosa and Auburn have a lot in common.

That assessment might give pause to passionate fans on both sides of what has been called college football’s greatest traditional rivalry. But if the subject is small-but-thriving communities that continue to expand their established industrial base while nurturing new businesses in emerging innovation sectors, the two cities – along with Tuscaloosa and Lee counties – offer a similar range of compelling advantages.

Start with the fact that both are home to major universities – the University of Alabama and Auburn University – with all of the attendant impacts on everything from K-12 education to arts and culture to economic development. Add low costs of living and doing business, numerous locational benefits and ample opportunities for outdoor recreation year-round, and the term “quality of life” becomes apparent in all its facets.

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“If you dig deep into quality of life, you’re looking at actual facts,” said Arndt Siepmann, deputy director of economic development for the city of Auburn. “You’re looking at schools, housing, public safety and the ways those things contribute not just to profitability, but to the ability to attract and retain great people. A healthy community and a healthy business climate go hand in hand.”

The same is true in Tuscaloosa, where Danielle Winningham is executive director of the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority (TCIDA). What Winningham describes as “a small-town feel with the amenities of a bigger city” is reflected in housing options, the availability of parks and the variety of retail options, in addition to a growing population and a dependable, qualified and skilled available workforce.

“It’s that combination of factors that makes this area so vibrant,” Winningham said.

Both communities are situated in the heart of the Southeast, offering convenient access to larger markets. Located near Alabama’s western border, Tuscaloosa is served by Interstate Highway 20/59, one of the nation’s busiest commercial corridors. It is 50 miles from Birmingham, Alabama’s largest city and home to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport. Across the state, near its eastern border, Auburn is connected by Interstate Highway 85 to Atlanta and its international airport, just over 100 miles away.

Meeting the coming demand

Looking to the future, Tuscaloosa and Auburn have strategically developed assets and partnerships that position them for long-term growth in areas related to technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. The universities are playing increasingly active roles in nurturing, supporting and accelerating a variety of sectors with high-growth potential – including software development, defense and cybersecurity, IT, and medical and other advanced manufacturing – as well as finding new ways to build on long-standing strengths in the automotive sector.

What’s more, both communities are recognized as developing labor markets for computer programmers. Currently, Auburn ranks No. 1 and Tuscaloosa No. 3 among all U.S. metro areas for computer programming cost factors, with that field projected to add well over 500,000 new jobs to the state economy by 2026. Alabama and Auburn have strong computer science programs at undergraduate and graduate levels and are highly attuned to meeting the coming demand.

“We’re putting a real emphasis on diversifying around knowledge-based industries,” said Winningham. “We recognize that both our existing industry base and those sectors that are just beginning to emerge have an important part to play in ensuring that our community continues to prosper in the future.”

One of the results of that strategy, Winningham points out, is The Edge, a 26,300-square-foot incubator and accelerator that provides office space, workstations, conference rooms and wet labs to knowledge-based startups and early-stage ventures. A partnership of the University of Alabama, the city of Tuscaloosa and the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, The Edge continues to see steady growth in the number of businesses and individuals it serves, from 28 businesses and 50 people in June 2019 to 39 businesses and 90 people a year later.

In addition, the University of Alabama’s technology incubator, Edge Labs, incubated five university spinoff companies in 2019: 525 Solutions, an R&D company developing liquid technologies for the medical, pharmaceutical and materials fields; ThruPore Technologies, which produces innovative specialty materials for industrial uses; JAQ Energy, a developer of new technologies for power electronic and energy systems; and ForeSense Technologies, which is commercializing technology – developed by University of Alabama researchers, working with U.S. Army scientists – that uses electrical signals to quickly detect hazardous airborne chemicals.

“These companies are great examples of our vision for the future,” said Winningham. “It’s about connecting creators, builders and visionaries with the resources they need to be successful.”

In Auburn, a twofold strategy is accelerating the build-out of what already is a robust innovation infrastructure. The 170-acre Auburn Research Park, a partnership of the city of Auburn and Auburn University managed by the Auburn Research and Technology Foundation, supports development of knowledge-based jobs in a setting adjacent to the university campus, with its fifth new facility – the 100,000-square-foot Research and Innovation Center – having opened this fall. The city and the university are working with local manufacturing companies to optimize collaboration around innovation.

“Manufacturing innovation is happening here,” Siepmann said. “We’re finding the answers to questions like, ‘Where are the best employees?’ and ‘What is the best training?’ Increased automation means increased demand for engineers and technicians from technology-based value-added manufacturing companies. Supporting that also helps drive innovation in other areas.”

Siepmann reels off three companies that exemplify Auburn’s growing success in leveraging and expanding its innovation infrastructure:

  • GE Aviation recently completed a $50 million expansion of its aerospace additive manufacturing operation to incorporate 3D printing technologies; the project created 60 new jobs.
  • RAPA, the U.S headquarters for German-based Rausch & Pausch. The company produces high-precision automotive parts, using Auburn-based R&D.
  • Sio2, a homegrown company that has for many years manufactured glass vials for medical and scientific uses. In July, the company announced a $163 million expansion after receiving a contract to supply the federal government with glass-lined plastic vials to support efforts to develop a vaccine for COVID-19; the project will create 220 jobs.

Siepmann also mentioned Auburn’s additive manufacturing accelerator, funded through the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs. Currently, the program is working with 10 existing companies and three startups.

“We are providing steppingstones for companies and founders to learn about the viability of technology in their operations,” said Siepmann. “Auburn is a great example of how economic developers can leverage the assets of a university and state government to accelerate innovation and business development.”

All of which adds up to one more thing that Auburn and Tuscaloosa have in common: A bright future.

(For more information about innovation and opportunities in Alabama, contact Amendi Stephens)

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

Alabama holiday sales predicted to meet or slightly exceed 2019’s $13.25 billion

Alabamians, like the rest of the nation, have already begun their holiday shopping to ensure they can get the gifts they want and that those gifts arrive on time.

Through September, Alabama consumers had spent almost 8% more than they did in 2019, based on Alabama Revenue Department reports on all state-taxed sales. That growth came despite the business disruptions caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Retail analysts and economists agree that this year’s holiday sales will be unchanged over the 2019 holidays or grow modestly. Unchanged would be good, because spending in Alabama in 2019 during the traditional holiday shopping months of November and December reached an all-time high of $13.25 billion.

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For the past decade, and especially the past few years, shoppers moved away from the traditional Black Friday (day after Thanksgiving) holiday shopping kickoff to Black November as their cue to begin shopping. The coronavirus has given shoppers reason to start their purchasing even earlier.

Alabama’s retailers are well-stocked and ready to serve their customers however they want to shop safely – in store, online, through apps or social media, delivery or pickup/curbside.

The Alabama Retail Association encourages shoppers to keep Alabama businesses open by planning to safely shop Alabama for the holidays throughout the holiday shopping season.

(Courtesy of the Alabama Retail Association)

6 hours ago

U.S. Rep.-Elect Carl urges State Sen. Elliott not to allow ‘personal feelings’ about Gov. Ivey interfere with I-10 Mobile Bay Bridge proposal

Earlier this week, State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Daphne) announced he had no interest in having discussions about a new I-10 Mobile Bay bridge until Gov. Kay Ivey and Alabama Department of Transportation director John Cooper were out of office given the way the 2019 toll bridge saga unfolded, which was canceled after the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) removed the project from its Transportation Improvement Program (TIP).

According to Elliott, that was the last line of defense against what appeared to be an unpopular effort by the Ivey administration to construct a bridge that would have incorporated a toll through a public-private partnership.

Friday, during an appearance on Mobile radio’s FM Talk 106.5, U.S. Rep.-elect Jerry Carl (R-Mobile) weighed in on the Eastern Shore MPO’s effort to revive the project and cautioned Elliott on taking such a stand on working with the Ivey administration.

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“Every time I cross the bridge, and I get stuck in traffic, I think about those of us that made a decision to push against the tolls, which I think was the right decision at that time,” he said. “But we’ve got to do something. We’re talking about not just the commercial side of that bridge but also us civilians going to and from work, shopping, beach — so on, and so forth. So, we’ve got to do something on the bridge. Now tolling is obviously off the table. But we’re going to do something.”

Carl urged Elliott not to rule out working with Ivey over “personal opinions” and said the focus should be on getting a solution on the bridge project.

“You know, I heard what my friend Chris Elliott said,” Carl continued. “Chris is a dear friend of mine, and he and I agree and disagree on a lot of things. But, you know, we can’t allow our opinions — and politics is like business. When you start allowing your personal opinions to spill over into your job, that’s when you start making some poor choices. And working with the governor or working with her staff — we don’t have an option.”

“Now I heard the argument you don’t trust them — well, that’s what the MPOs are for. They’re the check and balance system. It worked for us last time. So, why would it not work this time? I mean, it is a check and balance system. All the elected officials that sit on those MPOs — they did the job of shutting it down. Ultimately, they are the ones that shut it down on the Eastern Shore.”

“If the Eastern Shore wants to put it back together and bring it back up and talk to the governor about it — I say hoorah,” he added. “Let’s move on. Let’s see what we can actually do. Let’s see what the options are because doing nothing and waiting four years, waiting six years, or waiting whatever length of time until we have this administration replaced — I totally disagree with. Again, we work with a lot of people that we don’t care a lot for. I’m sure there are a lot of people that work with us that don’t care for us, too. But that’s just the daily way of doing business. And the governor — it has been a tough road, and we’ll all agree with that on this bridge project. But there have been so many parts that have truly been the big problem. Everyone that crosses that bridge that gets stuck is going to be thinking of our names. I’ll assure you that.”

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

6 hours ago

Mayors partner with Live HealthSmart Alabama to bring COVID-19 testing to their communities

Mayors across Jefferson County are leading an effort to bring COVID-19 testing to their communities by partnering with Live HealthSmart Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Center (MHRC).

Increasing options for testing is critical to reach all population groups, especially those in minority communities. Since August, Live HealthSmart Alabama has expanded its COVID-19 testing to such minority communities throughout Jefferson County, including Morris, Midfield, Kimberly, Bessemer, Trussville and many more – a task made possible by the mayors’ invitations into those communities.

Community testing is an essential part of the strategy to contain, and ultimately end, the pandemic.

“The MHRC has been a leader in community testing for COVID-19 in Birmingham and Jefferson County since we launched mobile testing locations early in the pandemic,” said Dr. Mona Fouad, director of the MHRC. “We are pleased to expand our partnership with these mayors to deliver testing across Jefferson County and help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

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Residents in rural and minority communities need to have the opportunity for testing. While other testing facilities are focused on population density, Live HealthSmart Alabama actively seeks out smaller neighborhoods that are often overlooked. And, in areas such as Hueytown, it is the perfect fit.

“UAB is making testing possible and convenient for our citizens,” said Brannan Clark, Hueytown’s fire marshal and safety officer. “The timing couldn’t be better; just before Thanksgiving when many families will gather for the first time in months. This testing is convenient and safe, especially for our seniors who haven’t left their homes much.”

Also working to bring Live HealthSmart Alabama testing to their communities are Joe Pylant, mayor of Morris; Kimberly Mayor Bob Ellerbrock; and Gardendale Mayor Stan Hogeland. Testing was available in Hueytown, thanks to the efforts of Mayor Steve Ware, and in Trussville through the support of Mayor Buddy Choat.

Funding is provided by the Jefferson County Commission through federal coronavirus funding, with the goal of increasing community-based testing in the county, particularly in areas serving vulnerable populations.

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s UAB News website.