Challenges in Matching COVID-19 Vaccine Demand

By Arthur Lobelle, Business Consultant

In March-April 2020, the first wave of COVID-19 infections reached its peak in Belgium. Since then, everyone had to accept the new way of living, with the virus being a continuous threat to our health and freedom. Chinese scientists started analysing the virus and on January 9th, 2020 they published the genetic code of SARS-CoV-2. This breakthrough was the global kick-off for the search for effective and safe COVID-19 vaccines.

An unprecedented international collaboration between different companies, governments and universities has led to the first announcements of positive results in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine in the second half of 2020. Beginning of 2021, the development race was successfully concluded when the first COVID-19 vaccines were approved in the US and in the EU.

For most companies, this event meant the hand-over from R&D to manufacturing teams of the organizations. The focus shifted from the development of the vaccine to ramp-up of manufacturing capacity and to efforts rendering the production processes more efficient. This second stage has presented some key challenges for COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers.

The demand for COVID-19 vaccines has surged from non-existing to over 10 billion doses worldwide. It is obvious that manufacturers do not immediately have the required capacity to deliver these volumes.

A first important limitation in upscaling the production has been the availability of raw materials. Due to global closures of production plants and international borders, supplies of crucial items (buffers, mouth masks, vials, etc.) have been substantially delayed and lead times throughout the supply chain have become unreliable. Some suppliers have been able to rapidly adjust to the increased demand, but the majority is still scaling up to reach the required levels of output. Establishing strong partnerships with suppliers and effective inventory management can help manufacturers to mitigate the risks of falling short of raw materials and thus shutting down the production lines.

Besides the raw materials availability, an important question to answer is “How much production capacity is required to match demand?”. This is not an easy question and different teams should be involved in this exercise. Marketing will assess market demand, production will estimate the capacity available and planning/purchasing teams will provide an overview of any possible bottlenecks regarding raw materials. Detailed and objective information on capacity and demand should be used. If current capacity is not sufficient, organizations can re-prioritize their own activities to make room for this business opportunity. Companies should however try to find the optimal balance between already existing business and the current pandemic. Existing customer accounts could be more sustainable in the long run, so a well-considered priority planning is required to make this judgement. If extra capacity fits in the long-term view of the organization, this can be a great opportunity to invest in new capacity.

It is believed that globally, sufficient capacity is available to support COVID-19 vaccine production (, however the capacity is geographically dispersed and spread among multiple companies. To level the differences, (competing) companies can join forces and act as contract manufacturing organizations (CMO’s) to temporarily offer capacity. Both companies will then have to find an agreement regarding intellectual property, quality requirements and regulatory affairs. When clearly defined, such technology transfers can be a beneficial relationship for both companies.

Due to the global race for the COVID-19 vaccine, manufacturers have accelerated some steps of the regular development process. The safety of the vaccine is not an issue since this aspect is thoroughly being tested. The efficiency of internal business processes, however, has not been a priority for most of them. The next challenge for manufacturers is to mature these processes for mass production. Having highly qualified employees and empowering them to take improvement initiatives is key in streamlining the process. Applying best practices throughout all manufacturing plants and a culture of continuous improvement will help companies seize efficiency gains.

With the development of the COVID-19 vaccines, the first hurdle has been taken. Now the whole world is impatiently waiting to go back to the good old ‘normal’ way of living. To reach this point, the number of vaccine deliveries must be increased significantly. For vaccine manufacturers this means a ramp-up of production capacity. Different challenges will occur in this stage, but with strong partnerships, effective materials management and continuously improving internal processes they can be managed well. ‚Äč


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– Arthur Lobelle, Business Consultant