Study finds solution to gaps in US flu vaccine supply chain

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Each fall, millions of Americans roll up their sleeves for a flu shot, without really thinking about where the vaccine comes from.

But when the next pandemic hits, and a new strain of flu emerges that none of us has a natural immunity to, Dr. Pinar Keskinocak, a professor at Georgia Tech's School of Industrial and Systems Engineering, says being able to effectively distribute the limited vaccine available early on in the outbreak could save thousands of lives.

"We might see over half of the population being infected over the course of the disease, which is huge," Keskinocak says. "Every other person could become ill at some point."

More than 50 million people died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19. Keskinocak's team focused on the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic.

As the vaccine became available, it was distributed to states based on their population.

The states were encouraged to report and collect data about how the vaccine was being administered locally.

But, the Tech researchers, found few states have systems to track vaccine supply and demand.

So, the distribution is often uneven.

"We may have some areas where people are lining up to get the vaccine, and the vaccine is not available," Keskinocak says. "We may have other areas where we have vaccine sitting in inventory, and there is no demand for it."

A better approach, researchers suggest, would be to push states to create, or beef up, their vaccine registries to better track vaccine uptake rates across the state.

Keskinocak's team found more transparency in the registries would allow the supply chain to be tweaked to better meet the demand for vaccine.

Instead of automatically allocating the vaccine based on population, it could be directed to areas where the demand is higher, and away from areas where the vaccine is piling up.

The team noted Oregon has a registry that tracks both public and private vaccine providers on a county level.

In their study simulations, Keskinocak says, a better match between supply and demand, kept as many as 100,000 Georgians from getting sick from the flu.

"If you think about 100,000 not getting sick in Georgia, over the course of this disease, that is very significant," she says.

This Tech study focused on pandemic flu. 

But, Keskinocak says fixing gaps in the vaccine allocation system could also potentially boost vaccination rates in a typical flu season.

Last year's flu season was particularly severe.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says as many as 80,000 Americans died from complications of the flu during the 2017-18 flu season.