Why supply chains are a critical force in a global pandemic

April 8, 2020
Supply chain sophistication can collapse response time and reduce the ability of a pandemic to spread.

When China proclaimed it would build a hospital in 10 days, we watched skeptically at first and then in awe. Now, as COVID-19’s impacts have made their way around the world, U.S. manufacturers are scrambling to retool operations to produce critical supplies. The world is now seeing how supply chains have been the invisible, underestimated force that makes our modern world possible, and that they are one of the biggest pieces of emergency response and solution in a crisis.

As we’ve seen with COVID-19, the response speed of supply chains is critical in helping slow down and even prevent the total number of casualties in a global health emergency. The sooner solutions can be assembled — whether it is a hospital being built or getting PPE into the hands of medical teams — the sooner people can be treated and the less spread that occurs.

A model simulation cited in Nature shows that, “…if China had implemented its control measures a week earlier, it could have prevented 67 percent of all cases in the country. Implementing the measures three weeks earlier...would have cut the number of infections to 5 percent of the total.” Similarly, Italian officials estimate that if they had acted 10 days sooner, they could have avoided tens of thousands of fatalities. Supply chains play an important role in implementing response measures and building out a local healthcare system’s capacity.

Strong supply chains get facilities built, resources reallocated, and supplies to the site as quickly as possible, including medical treatment and materials for front-line medical workers like masks, gloves, disinfectants, and suits. They also provide populations with supplies to swiftly implement response protocols. According to the World Health Organization, end-to-end supply chain and logistics systems are the foundation of successful immunization programs. 

During unprecedented times like these, there is a need for unprecedented mobilization efforts. In an attempt to build the local healthcare system capacity in Wuhan, China, the Chinese built an emergency hospital in 10 days. The Wuhan hospital provides a fascinating example of how to leverage supply chains as a tool to curtail the spread of coronavirus.

The 1,000-bed Wuhan hospital required mobilization across many fronts, including construction, water line infrastructure, hospital equipment, medical supplies and more. For faster mobilization, the hospital deployed modular construction techniques, which rely on prefabricated structural components manufactured off-site. 

Orchestrating supply chains for a pandemic 

China’s distinct perspective as a centrally controlled state offers an ease of access and visibility to all of its operations across various industries. This is not an option for most other entities trying to coordinate response whether it’s governments, companies, NGOs or others. Coordination of this nature would be an extremely complex exercise for them when it comes to managing information from different sources and parties — unless they have implemented an advanced supply chain system that enables continuous visibility into operations.

Continuous visibility along the supply chain helps minimize interruption of the critical flow of supplies and materials and improves overall response speed. By relying on software and advanced systems to source, harmonize, and streamline all of the forms of data needed into one single truth of information, companies and other entities can condense timelines and ensure product integrity. It also creates a platform for businesses, governments, and nonprofits in the effort to curtail the pandemic to synchronize workflows and coordination. In times of global health crises, the urgency of strong and advanced supply chains becomes even more critical.

Protecting integrity is about knowing your weakest links 

Ensuring product integrity is paramount for critical response since there is no time to lose and no supplies to waste. Therefore, it is important to know the pain point for each industry or supply chain, and identify, monitor, and get ahead of it through computations like “what-if” analyses. Having visibility into factors around condition, timing, and location help create a real-time view into what’s happening at every point along the supply chain. The same is true for contextual information from a business process and environmental perspective for all material goods and assets, which is particularly critical for high-value, sensitive materials like treatment doses. 

Should a COVID-19 vaccine be created, being able to manage temperature excursion will be essential for early prevention measures. 

In order to support pandemic relief, temperature excursion, the biopharma industry’s biggest supply chain challenge, needs to be solved. Temperature excursions anywhere along the supply chain can result in loss of life if time sensitive treatments are stalled due to questionable stability and efficacy. Continuous visibility makes it possible for biopharma companies to be notified and intervene if there is a temperature issue in real time anywhere along the supply chain. It also simplifies the processes of managing the time pharmaceuticals spend outside of temperature control during manufacturing. 

Moisture is the critical pain point in the supply chain for modular construction, a key element of the Wuhan hospital’s development strategy. Adding a software visibility platform that’s able to track moisture among the pallets of materials through transport and sends alerts, would make it possible to get ahead of any issues that damage materials and derail construction. Spoiled goods could more easily be re-routed and replaced while work flows are adjusted, instead of finding out that goods are unusable upon arrival, which would cause unaffordable delays. For equipment used in construction, tracking vibration can prevent adverse shocks and prevent tools from getting decalibrated en route.

The global response to COVID-19 will hold many lessons across the public and private sectors. While some companies have been working to modernize their supply chains before coronavirus, the need for visibility and supply chain modernization so they can be better orchestrated, more flexible, and as efficient as possible — is increasingly apparent. The call for this transition is no longer limited to being good for business, it is now essential before the next global emergency occurs.

About the Author

Mahesh Veerina | President and CEO, ParkourSC

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