“Up until a few weeks ago, I knew very little about the supply chain,” said Megan Ranney, a professor of emergency medicine at Brown University. “It always just worked. But I’ve learned a bunch, and it’s more fragile than we ever thought possible.” COVID-19 has forced her — and lots of other hospitalists around the country — to become supply chain experts on the fly.
A supply chain is a fancy term to describe how products get made and moved all around the globe. It’s a simple concept, but not a simple process. Supply chains aren’t a conveyor belt — they’re a ballet. And there are many, many ways this spectacular show can fall flat on its face. The production of a single item often involves multiple factories in several different countries and depends on speedy, reliable international shipping to get each piece to the right place at the right time — and then to the buyers exactly when they need it.
In fact, experts in both manufacturing and medicine have spent years warning of the risks a pandemic — or another major disaster — could cause to supply chains. In 2011, for instance, Quilty documented that the hospital where he worked at the time had less than a 30 days’ supply of penicillin and many other crucial pharmaceutical drugs. A 2017 paper by scientists with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pointed out that PPE supplies had run into problems during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic and the 2014 Ebola virus epidemic, and warned that the system wasn’t prepared to handle a sudden increase in demand. Multiple reports have been published on how avian flu pandemics could disrupt everything from computer manufacturing to the global food supply.
“PPE is the canary in the coal mine,” Ranney said. She, and other experts, told me that right now, that’s the main place we’re seeing supply chains break down. But those same issues apply to damn near everything else we make and sell. The longer the pandemic goes on, the more products will be affected.