Don't Let Coronavirus Break the Supply Chain

A pandemic like this forces us to protect the things we take for granted: like the supply chain that keeps medicines and crucial equipment flowing to the public

Dr. Nicolette Louissaint | Guest Contributor

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The pandemic has put a focus on supply chain of both PPE - personal protective equipment - and medicines in the last few weeks. There are a number of think pieces about this, so I wanted to offer a few thoughts.

First: There's a desire to pin down an exact number of "things" in the supply chain. While numbers can give the illusion of certainty, the supply chain is highly dynamic. The end-to-end supply chain is multi-functional. More here from Reha Uszoy at Purdue University …

It's also global and interconnected. So knowing that X# of product is in Y location actually tells you nothing. And it certainly doesn't answer the question of "do we have enough ABCD?" because ... demand.

Demand - usage, waste, loss, etc. - is going to determine that. Behaviors that can seem helpful - like massive stockpiling for facilities or people - can be harmful. This is especially true when done at a large scale. Artificial surges in the system can strain it, and that is not a solution to creating more supply chain resilience.

The supply chain is actually pretty resilient. What no supply chain - of any product - can do is turn on a dime to meet a global, unprecedented massive surge in demand. But there are buffers in place to minimize shock until demand can be met. More here

The Strategic National Stockpile is a part of that buffer. It's not its own supply chain, but a readied system to help fill the temporary gap in events with tremendous surge. It helps with the resilience question and surge. Here’s a report in Washington Post about that Stockpile …

There are also organizations focused on improvements like @HC_Ready. But we don't fund health preparedness systems at the level needed to ready the domestic public health system for these events.

General point: it is unreasonable to expect production of anything - truly anything - to match an unexpected massive surge in demand. My neighborhood is out of bacon. Yes: bacon. It's not because there isn't bacon nationally available. It's because no one wants to be home without it. Government dollars must be focused on a strategy that builds supply chain resilience without straining it further, and sustaining it long-term. Which also means focusing on the end-to-end chain, not just raw materials or front end. We could invest in partnerships that accomplish that. It’s important to note that there are different grades of product (industrial grade isn't necessarily medical grade), but in instances like this, getting the complete picture of availability across multiple sectors matters.