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Operation Warp Speed Raises Many Questions from The Supply Chain Industry Some with Answers That Have Yet to Emerge

Amy Thorn

Army Maj. Gen. Chris Sharpsten, who is directing supply production and distribution for Operation Warp Speed (OWS) for the United States Department of Defense (DOD), visited our SCLA Executive Think Tank group recently for an extremely illuminating discussion about the ongoing COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the United States, which is being led by OWS at the federal government level.


While it seems that politics has unfortunately clouded some public opinion about OWS, the effort is a fantastic public-private partnership that is functioning well—much better than the media would have us believe. Still, there are a lot of questions from our hardworking supply chain industry—some with answers that are still emerging at this time.


In today’s post, I’m sharing just a few of the biggest questions that my colleagues and I posed to MG Sharpsten, along with his answers. Special thanks go out to all who raised these questions—and more—during our discussion, including IBM's Fotini Petroula, Gregg Zody of BNSF Railway, Michael Jacobs of Ferguson Enterprises, Rear Admiral Mark Heinrich, Don Klock of Rutgers Business School, and others.




1.   How disruptive is vaccine distribution to the supply chain?


Despite what may be getting reported by some news outlets, vaccine distribution is mostly running like clockwork now. Unfortunately, it’s manufacturing that needs to catch up to our distribution capabilities, as well as administration—actually getting shots into arms—needing to increase substantially. We could also be looking at a public education campaign a little bit later on once we have enough supply in hand. (More on that following question #4 below.)

2.   What will happen next year and the year after? Is distribution going to be a repeatable process?


It’s true that the length of immunity instilled by the COVID-19 vaccine is still being studied. Science currently estimates that immunity may last up to about 12 months, so this question is undoubtedly a valid one from the supply chain.

MG Sharpsten related that OWS was never intended to be a long-term effort. Instead, its purpose was to accelerate the effort and then hand it back to the organizations that normally do this work.

He noted, “We have already conducted transition planning to ensure that once there is sufficient supply to address America’s demands, the majority of the daily requirements at OWS will transfer back to Health & Human Services, National Institutes of Health, the CDC, and others to do those jobs. In 2022, you’ll see a COVID-19 vaccination effort that looks more like the annual influenza campaign.”

3.   How many doses of the distributed vaccine have been administered?

MG Sharpsten shared that this information is tracked and regularly updated by the CDC. As of this writing, nearly 22 million doses have been administered to about 18 million Americans. (Recall that both of the currently approved vaccines—from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna—require two doses for full effectiveness.)

4.   Based on what you see today, when will we hit herd immunity for the United States?

“According to Dr. Fauci, herd immunity is around 65-70%,” MG Sharpsten stated. “From a supply/demand POV, we will start to get to a point for nationwide distribution where we have more doses available than Americans willing to take the vaccine somewhere in the April timeframe.”

What he means is that by April, there should be two more vaccines approved for use by the FDA, which will dramatically increase our available supplies. However, we’ll hit a wall with Americans who are nervous about getting the vaccine and are refusing it. At that point, it may come down to a coordinated marketing effort, as we’ll need a vaccine confidence campaign to help change some reluctant minds.

Introducing Vaccine Incentives

My colleague Ron Marotta, VP at Yusen Logistics, shared that his organization has been discussing ways to encourage team members to get the vaccine as soon as it’s available to them. This includes incentivizing getting the vaccine.

American employers, both large and small, might consider following the incentive model to ensure that more individuals see it as a positive thing instead of something they’re being told to get “for the public good,” which can be a hazy concept.

So, despite some bumps in the road with the vaccine rollout thus far—and some questions from our supply chain leaders that may not yet have clear answers—we are optimistic that COVID-19 will finally be tamed in the coming months. This is thanks in no small part to Operation Warp Speed and the efforts of supply chain leaders like MG Sharpsten.

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