Vaccine distribution challenge

Raghu Dayal | Updated on June 21, 2021

Innovative logistics is needed to get the vaccines to rural India

When the first consignment of Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine from Russia reached Delhi airport early November last year, for onward journey to Central Drug Laboratory, Kasauli, it signified a dry run for the formidable logistics challenge of reaching massive doses of temperature-sensitive vaccine across the country in quick time. Sputnik vials needed to be stored at (-20) degrees Celsius throughout the logistics chain.

While ensuring seamless cold chain vaccine operations, all the logistics players involved in the complex task need to coalesce and collaborate The Serum Institute of India, the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer, having been licensed to mass-produce the vaccine developed by Oxford University and Swedish-British drugmaker AstraZeneca, has been a mainstay for vaccine supply in the country. Unlike the vaccines from Pfizer or Moderna that require ultra low (up to minus 70 degree C) temperature-controlled storage, the one from AstraZeneca one can be stored in a normal refrigerator.

India is struggling to ramp up vaccine production and supplies to be able inoculate at least 60 per cent of population in quick time and safeguard against any further waves.

Also, the country faces the herculean task of reaching the vaccine to villages and remote areas where transport and storage facilitates are virtually non-existent. Additionally, qualified manpower needs to be arranged for administering the vaccine.

Minimise wastage

Ingenious and innovative methods need to be evolved to ensure wastage of the vaccine is minimised. Home-grown integrated transport systems must be developed to take the vaccines from nodal centres like district headquarters to wherever the intended beneficiaries are. India has the experience of deploying electoral staff, EVMs, etc., to the remotest locations during elections. That template may well be adopted for the current emergency.

Concomitantly, appropriate logistics infrastructure must be devised. For instance, select railway stations and post offices may be identified as vaccine distribution points, from where the assigned staff can take the supplies to intended destinations and complete the inoculation process.

Logistics is the life-blood of any economy. In India, logistics is characterised by high costs (around 14 per cent of GDP vis-à-vis 8 per cent in industrial economies). Even if the costs are pared by just 2 per cent, it can add around $50 billion to the nation’s economy annually.

To help cut logistics costs, a pain point for the industry for a long time, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called for a “new direction” to infrastructure development, ensuring multimodal coordination and different modes complementing each other. Notwithstanding the Covid pandemic casting a huge shadow of uncertainty, the demand for transportation is likely to be affected by multiple factors — rapid urbanisation, demographic changes, growing middle class, and the digital revolution. There is a paradigm change in transport itself — involving the convergence of traditional transport infrastructure with the world of information technology.

Transport today is a high-tech industry. As transport costs fall, geography matters less. To scale up investments in infrastructure, the government has been making substantial sectoral allocations: subsuming all existing highway projects, the ₹5.5 trillion umbrella Bharatmala programme envisages about 84,000 km of new highways to be constructed; likewise Sagarmala entails an investment of ₹6 trillion for around 600 projects to unlock the potential of country’s 7,500 km coastline and 14,500 km of navigable waterways. The Railways too projects a ₹1.6 trillion investment plan.

Like at seaports, India needs to significantly improve the air cargo infrastructure and processes, to facilitate transport of increasing volumes of light weight, high value cargo. The heart of the Railways’ freight strategy should be creation of high volume, high speed freight corridors and calibrating the services to create critical mass of wagons/containers carrying piecemeal general goods in train loads, in partnership with other players, for an integrated time-tabled multimodal ‘whole journey’ service.

Like micro-planning for zero-failure strategic operations, the evolving vaccine supply chain system will test the nation’s ability to minutely and effectively plan, coordinate, and deliver as per requirement.

If the vaccine logistics challenge is tackled with grit, it will showcase once again to the world India’s unique ability to scale up when the situation demands.

The writer is a former Managing Director, Container Corporation of India

Published on June 21, 2021

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