Would an Amazon-Like Approach Help the Vaccine Rollout?
As of today, Israel has vaccinated more than 20% of its population against COVID-19. Its regional neighbor, the United Arab Emirates, has given almost 13% of its citizens the first dose. But as of Jan. 12, the United States has managed to jab fewer than 3% of its people’s arms.
It is true that comparing trends in small countries versus much-larger ones is a little bit like comparing apples and pumpkins. But still, the question on many people’s minds is “what’s the problem here?”
Several factors are probably to blame for this sluggish performance and some observers point to supply chain hiccups that might not be uncommon for run-of-the-mill products and typically are not life-threatening. But in the context of a global pandemic that has already killed nearly 380,000 Americans, a rising level of frustration is understandable.
“We will almost certainly do better in a month or two, except that we don’t have the luxury of taking the time to perfect things,” observed Tinglong Dai, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, in a recent interview. “After all, we have hundreds of thousands of infections and thousands of deaths every day.”
Operation Warp Speed has shipped only about half of its expected doses, and only 30% of those have been administered. “In other words, we are utilizing only 15% of what we as a nation have,” Dai said. “We have to do better than this for the U.S. to move on from being the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“Think about it: Amazon can deliver to 70% of the U.S. population on the same or next day. That’s efficiency and equity achieved at the same time.”
Dai said the main obstacle appears to be a simple lack of staff, space and time to administer the doses. Another factor, at least until very recently, was that the U.S. government had been holding back on doses. It is also a matter of where one lives: States with strong statewide coordination and broad stakeholder participation are doing comparatively well. Other states took a more passive approach and the results speak for themselves.
The solution, Dai suggested, might be found by setting up “Amazon-style fulfillment centers at the state and county levels that receive shipments from the feds and deliver vaccines to various distribution sites on an on-demand basis or following a given schedule. Think about it: Amazon can deliver to 70% of the U.S. population on the same or next day. That’s efficiency and equity achieved at the same time.”
“The solution is what the airlines use to ensure that they fill as many seats as possible on every flight: overbooking.”
Writing in The Hill, Sheldon H. Jacobson, a computer science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, also looked to the private sector for inspiration, in this instance to reduce waste in the supply chain.
“The solution is what the airlines use to ensure that they fill as many seats as possible on every flight: overbooking,” Jacobson said. “By scheduling more people for an immunization session than vaccines [are] available, few if any vaccines will get wasted. People should be alerted to this possibility beforehand, so they can be prepared if they need to be rescheduled. The key point is to ensure that no vaccine doses are wasted, given the limited supply available and their enormous societal value as a public asset.”
The bottom line, according to Dai, is that “we have to rethink how we connect vaccines and people. When we hear the story of a 71-year-old woman who made 184 calls to get a vaccine appointment and failed, we know there’s something fundamentally wrong with our vaccine supply chain. We are a nation with some of the most efficient supply chains on the earth, and we can do better.”