Why Relief Supply Chains Will Fight the Next Disease Outbreak

The year was 2014. A deadly disease the world had never seen on such a grand scale was making its way across West Africa. The Ebola Virus started small, initially appearing towards the end of 2013, in a remote village of Meliandou in the Guéckédou region of Guinea, just a few miles away from the country's borders with Liberia and Sierra Leone. Yet within months it spread like wildfire. The disease didn’t discriminate. Young or old, it didn’t matter: everyone was at risk.

West Africa is legendary for the most friendly and personal interactions – even among strangers. But Ebola, which is transmitted through bodily contact, changed all that. Too afraid to contract the virus, many people had given up their most common practice: the handshake. Blue handwashing buckets lined the city streets; bush meat, a popular dish in the region, disappeared from the menu on suspicion of transmitting the virus from the animal to the human world. Experts maintain there will likely be a re-emergence of Ebola at some point, and everyone from government, aid agencies to the citizens are gearing up to stop any new flare-ups.
 
Gearing up and fighting the disease
 
Gloves. Protective gear. Disinfectant. 
 
To contain the Ebola outbreak, these items and many others were needed urgently. As the numbers of people infected rose, medical supplies disappeared from the shelves quicker than health and aid workers could replenish them.
 
Recognizing that a large share of the costs for a pandemic relates to supplies, and a delay in their delivery can seriously compromise the timeliness of health interventions, the supply chain is a crucial element for an effective response.
 
To be better prepared for future health crises, WFP and a number of public and private sector actors – including Becton Dickinson, Cardinal Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), GS1, Henry Schein, NEC, UNICEF, University of Minnesota, UPS, World Economic Forum, World Bank, and WHO – have come together to develop a supply chain platform that will enable fast and agile responses to disease outbreaks.
 
Stocking supplies and saving lives
 
Ensuring quick and appropriate delivery of supplies to families in need often makes the difference between life and death. This was especially true of the Ebola epidemic, where time was of the essence and the slightest gap or delay in the response meant at best increased suffering and at worst, loss of life. Because of this, supply chain management is the backbone of any emergency response, yet the Ebola outbreak tested even the most robust relief supply chains.
 
“The very nature of relief supply chains is to operate even in disrupted environments,” says Wolfgang Herbinger, WFP Special Adviser on Pandemic Supply Chain. “But in the face of the Ebola outbreak, delivering the right supplies in the right quantities to the right locations at the right time proved to be a daunting ask, even for the most seasoned emergency responders.”

How it works
 
Known as the Global Supply Network for Pandemic Preparedness and Response, the group grew out of the 2015 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos. They focus on supply chain and logistics improvements that would help improve the world’s ability to effectively respond to pandemics.
 
The initiative complements several other efforts that are currently underway to strengthen both national and international systems to prevent and manage future pandemics.
 
The initiative has already made good progress. This includes identification of the top 60 items that would need to be procured and delivered in response to ten of the most likely pandemic outbreaks. Progress has also been made on mapping up-stream air and ocean supply routes on a virtual dashboard.  Moreover, work is ongoing on developing guidance and protocols for down-stream logistics scale-up as well as assessing the feasibility of a pandemic supply chain information management system.
 
What’s next?
 
Earlier this year the members of the initiative agreed on a Mission Statement and Protocol for Engagement. This has now been followed-up by a specific effort to ensure arrangements and governance structures for pandemic supply chain logistics are agreed upon and tested in 2016. Work on the pandemic supply chain information platform will be strengthened and eventually tested in a pandemic preparedness simulation exercise in early 2017.