The Blueprint for India's Vaccination Drive Was Always in Its Industries' Supply Chains

Even if the Centre acknowledges the huge blunders it has made in this entire effort and starts fixing the loopholes, we can still make it work.

It has been more than four months since our vaccination drive started. So far, we have been able to administer a little over 19.6 crore doses to 14.7 crore people. While daily vaccinations peaked at 42 lakhs on April 2, 2021, the pace has been slowing down in the last few days.

While we administered an average of 30.24 lakh doses per day in April 2021, this number has fallen to 16.22 average daily doses for May 2021. The issue is not with the non-availability of people at centres to be vaccinated. The issue is with the production line and the availability of vaccines. Simply put, the issue is with the supply chain and one does not need to reinvent the wheel to fix it.

The basic principle of supply chain is to get the right material, from the right source, at the right price, at the right time and at the right place.

Industries such as the automotive industry have been doing this day-in and day-out. The simple rule is that the production line simply cannot stop, at any cost. And this is just a vehicle we are talking about. Drawing an analogy between the automotive supply chain and the vaccination drive provides us with great insights of how our broken vaccination drive could have been fixed using the age-old mechanism set-up by this industry. 

Notice saying ‘No vaccine available for people below 45 years’ in Delhi, photographed following a Delhi government order on May 22, 2021. Photo: PTI

A car has close to 20,000 individual parts and a typical car manufacturer would work with close to 500 suppliers who manufacture and supply these parts. Even if parts vary across different models, a car manufacturer would easily have close to 50,000 individual parts that they manage. The manufacturer invests significant time in finding the right source for a strategic relationship, provides tooling and development costs for the supplier to manufacture the parts, negotiates cost on minimum order quantity and consolidated volumes and enters into a long-term supply agreement.

Also read: The Least the Centre Can Do for People Now Is Provide Free COVID Vaccines

The sales team shares demand numbers that go into the sales and operations planning to arrive at the production plan. The car manufacturer shares a daily production plan for the next three months so that the supplier can also spare capacities for production, get raw materials, keep stocks and plan accordingly. The supplier then supplies materials according to the production plan. To add to the twist, the supply plan for suppliers sometimes changes at a week’s notice and sometimes the suppliers make daily deliveries right at the production line.

Now imagine we were not talking about supply chains of a car manufacturer but the vaccination drive of the government of India.

Just that the Union government did not have to manage 50,000 individual items but just one. Not 500 suppliers but just two to five. The complexity reduces there itself.

It is not about the sales numbers here. The entire population represents the target number. As the car manufacturer provides monetary support for tooling and development, the Union government could have invested money or provided it as advance to develop vaccines and ramp-up capacity. Instead of the production plan, the Centre should have set a target date or duration by when it targets all Indians to be vaccinated.

Calculating backwards, a daily vaccination target could have been set and the plan shared with its suppliers – which in this case would be these vaccine manufacturers. Since the objective of the government is philanthropy, holding inventory would not have been a problem too. Instead of a fractured policy of individual orders being placed by states, better pricing and terms could have been negotiated on consolidated volumes.

Medical staff wave towards a colleague as they take an elevator to the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) ward for the patients suffering from coronavirus disease at the Government Institute of Medical Sciences (GIMS) hospital, in Greater Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi on May 21, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

A car manufacturer is serious about the line not stopping due to material shortage from suppliers. A vehicle is small when compared to life. Imagine people waiting at the centres and vaccines not being available. Which is a bigger sin? A vehicle less in this world or a life lost?

Also read: How the Modi Government Overestimated India’s Capacity to Make COVID Vaccines

There are a lot of learnings from age-old, proven processes in place. Even Indian manufacturers have mastered this art of production planning and managing their supply chains.

One cannot afford to hold lives of innocent Indians at ransom, simply because of a shoddy, myopic and completely botched-up vaccination plan. When other nations were scouting and approving manufacturers, consolidating volumes and placing advanced orders since May 2020, providing support to manufacturers (as the US did in July 2020), holding inventory of 5 times to 10 times of their population, we were being mere ringside observers.

If vaccination is the strongest medium in our fight against this deadly virus, the Central government should have been more serious towards this effort. So far, we have done exactly opposite to what proven wisdom tells us. Although we cannot bring back lost lives, we can at least still learn.

Even if the Centre acknowledges the huge blunders it has made in this entire effort and starts fixing the loopholes, we can still make it work. The blueprint is out there. We should target to completely vaccinate 75% of our population in six months.  

Professor Gourav Vallabh is national spokesperson of the Congress party.