What to expect for COVID-19 vaccine supply chains and employers planning a return to the workplace


Stuart Henderson, Global Life Sciences Lead

As we look ahead to what 2021 holds, we should also look back at the incredible accomplishments we have seen in 2020 to develop the vaccines we have now. We are truly grateful to the scientists and healthcare professionals working tirelessly on the front lines, and to the 300,000+ volunteers who have taken part in vaccine clinical trials. We are hopeful that the roll-out of vaccines signals the beginning of the end of this pandemic.

Companies have matched their extraordinary efforts on the science of vaccine development by doing an extraordinary job on the supply chain side. The mRNA vaccines currently distributed have highly specific storage requirements; the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine in particular needs careful cold chain management to ensure that the mRNA in the vaccine does not degrade during transport, so that by the time it gets to the recipient it is still effective.

The mRNA vaccine uses small strands of genetic material that are essentially assembly instructions for your cells to produce a specific protein. The mRNA instructs cells to manufacture a protein that matches part of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. These new proteins are then recognized by your immune cells as something to attack, building immunity if the same protein appears in your body through exposure to the coronavirus.

mRNA is used inside your body every day in the process of building and repairing cells, but it is short-lived and degrades quickly. In order to keep the vaccine viable, Pfizer developed a reusable suitcase-sized container with technology that tracks both location and temperature to ensure that the cold chain is not broken. These containers are used to transport the vaccine from its production sites throughout the supply network. While Moderna’s vaccine has different temperature storage requirements which may be easier to meet, the reality is that we’re going to need all these vaccines to meet global demand, and each vaccine will be applicable in different locations. And we know that manufacturing the vaccine and distributing it is just one part of the equation to eradicate this pandemic. Getting people vaccinated—the “last mile”—is another essential component, one that is proving to be challenging. We saw a tremendous shift to virtual and remote care during COVID-19 and this shift needs to be considered as part of the last mile. We need to make it easy for people to get vaccinated, and utilize data, analytics and AI to model where and how this can be done.

Challenges will continue to arise; mutations of the virus, drug development practices no longer viable, keeping volunteers safe at trial sites and efficient distribution of the vaccines are just a few.

At the end of 2020, as a new strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus was identified by a small group of UK scientists, growing case numbers pushed the UK and other countries back into nationwide lockdowns. Governments are utilizing a variety of public health measures, and widespread vaccinations will be an important part of these campaigns. Each company who may now have obsolete compounds, or are currently progressing with vaccine development, has a role to play to maximize reach in the coming months and gain momentum in the fight against COVID-19. Mobilization of the life sciences community to work together in unison will require transparency and agility, but we have already seen incredible progress.

Andrew Meade, Life Sciences Lead, UK and Ireland

Having made it through 2020, we are very relieved to look ahead into 2021. We now have not just one but several COVID-19 vaccines thanks to the great work of companies like Oxford/AstraZeneca, Moderna and Pfizer-BioNtech.

Even as more local and national lockdowns are being implemented around the world, and may continue over the coming months, with stricter measures implemented, we must also start looking ahead to what vaccines will mean for business. We have been very effective at working remotely, but we do want and need to get back into the office to ideate and create. An office isn’t just a place of work, it’s where we connect. We must continue planning for the return of our workforce.

However, when we do get back to the office, things will still be different than before. We all need to strike a new balance between what we can do at home and what we do in the office. Accenture has done some fascinating work with our clients on transforming work culture in recent months that builds on our own experience in 2020, including the tools and solutions we have utilized to enable better alignment and collaboration. We are leveraging collaboration technology to reduce email traffic, deploying NextGen learning methods to make training more experiential, and pushing asynchronous communications to improve how we get work done.

Across all industries, employers will have to continue to be dynamic in the coming months. Flexibility will continue to be essential in 2021, with new methods deployed to support and empower employees to autonomously manage their schedules and balance work with personal obligations. Long-term working from home has been a positive for some in terms of lifestyle balance, and many of us have careers which required too much time away. But fundamentally humans are social animals who want to see each other and be together. We are enthusiastic to meet in person again with our colleagues and with our clients when the time is right, and to be part of the workplace buzz. As we think about the future of the work, employers will need to revisit location strategies, rethink shared office spaces and invest in technology to make “smart” work environments.

That being said, our leading priorities are the safety of our employees and our communities. Even as we plan for a potential return to the workplace in 2021, we will do so with flexibility and utmost care for the health and wellbeing of our people.

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Stuart Henderson

Market Unit Lead – US Northeast

Andrew Meade

Managing Director – Life Sciences

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