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The Road to Deploying a COVID-19 Vaccine

McKesson is relying on its historic expertise as it prepares to deploy a future COVID-19 vaccine.

As drug companies move into final phases of clinical trials for potential COVID-19 vaccines, preparing what it will take to distribute many of the new vaccines at such a massive scale becomes another challenge. Beyond the likelihood that more than one vaccine will be approved for use, ancillary supplies such as syringes and alcohol prep pads are also needed for those frontline healthcare workers who will ultimately administer it. But how will the vaccine get to the hospitals, pharmacies and other care centers once it is made available?

As a recently named centralized distributor for the COVID-19 vaccine and ancillary supplies, McKesson has a unique perspective to shed light on the answer. The company is preparing to carry out the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) directions for the efficient distribution of vaccines to point-of-care settings across the country. And this isn’t the first time the company has stepped up to support public health initiatives.

McKesson has a long history of deploying vaccines through its healthcare supply chain, which operates from hubs based in several strategic locations. From managing the distribution of vaccines during the 2009 H1N1 public health crisis to operating as the largest seasonal flu vaccine distributor each year, McKesson has the capability and experience to help support the country’s response to this critical moment in history.

“As a company that is devoted to the health and wellbeing of people everywhere, we understand the significance of this moment and our role as one of the government’s vaccine distribution partners,” said Shawn Seamans, president of RxCrossroads by McKesson and the executive in charge of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine program. “No one can predict exactly when a final vaccine will be approved, but it is our mission to be ready for that major milestone.”

Lessons from the Past

From 2006 through today, McKesson has been the official vaccine distribution partner for the CDC Vaccines for Children Program (VFC). VFC provides participating healthcare providers with publicly purchased vaccines to vaccinate millions of uninsured and underinsured children in all 50 states and U.S. territories.

“Through the centralization of the VFC’s distribution model, we helped to streamline the CDC's inventory process, which lessened the likelihood of vaccine emergencies, improved the consistency and reliability of the vaccine supply, and reduced costs,” Seamans noted. “In a typical year, we successfully distribute millions of doses of refrigerated vaccines, from influenza, polio and chickenpox to measles, hepatitis A and B and HPV.”

Ramping Up to Deploy the H1N1 Vaccines

In April 2009—three years after McKesson first partnered with the CDC—the H1N1 influenza outbreak hit the world, impacting young people the most. It was determined early on that the seasonal flu vaccine wouldn’t work against this virus, but there was confidence that an H1N1 vaccine could be developed in the same way—ultimately allowing manufacturers to quickly find a solution. In just a few short months, two kinds of vaccines were created: flu shots administered with needles and a nasal spray vaccine.

By August of that year, the CDC selected McKesson as a centralized distribution partner to prepare for the deployment of the H1N1 vaccine based on the proven success of the CDC VFC Program. The government’s key decision at that time was to streamline access to the vaccine by purchasing it directly from manufacturers and managing the allocation of the vaccine with state health authorities. Then, the states could direct McKesson to ship the vaccine to hospitals, pharmacies and other care settings nationwide.

“In a matter of weeks, we set up multiple dedicated distribution centers for two different vaccines types from five manufacturers across the U.S.,” said Darrell Rawlings, vice president, Pharmaceuticals and project leader for the company’s COVID-19 vaccine program. “At first, the vaccines were allocated by the states to the most vulnerable populations until it became more readily available to everyone. We ultimately distributed vaccines to approximately 70,000 care settings.”

A little over a year later, many health organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), declared the end of the global pandemic.

Looking Ahead – The COVID-19 Vaccine

In August 2020, McKesson was asked again to expand its existing contract with the CDC to support the U.S. government as a centralized distributor of future refrigerated and minus 20°C vaccines, as well as ancillary supplies for COVID-19 vaccination.

In the centralized model, the CDC is managing and directing all future COVID-19 vaccine distribution decisions, including which vaccine to send, how many doses, where it goes and when to ship it. Ultimately, the CDC is partnering with state and local health departments to work collaboratively to facilitate vaccinations at thousands of administration sites nationwide.

In order to prepare, McKesson is relying on its historic expertise and long-standing capabilities. The company is also building several new distribution centers, as well as adding a significant number of new staff to support this endeavor.

While there is much focus on the work needed to get COVID-19 vaccines out to the public once approved, McKesson is also cognizant of the importance of maintaining its regular supply chain of medicines and supplies.

“We understand the magnitude of this public health crisis and believe that when the time comes, we will be as ready as possible without compromising other aspects of our business,” said Rawlings. He also pointed out that the company has already begun shipping some of the millions of seasonal flu vaccine doses throughout the U.S.

The road to developing a COVID-19 vaccine has already passed some significant milestones. And while the entire global healthcare industry continues to band together with various government agencies to get to approved vaccines, McKesson will do its part when the time comes to take that much anticipated step to deliver the vaccines across America.

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