Vaccine ready

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by Emily Atkins

As scientists and researchers work feverishly to develop a vaccine that will work against the virus causing the Covid-19 pandemic, in the background supply chain teams across the pharmaceutical industry and its transport suppliers are working just as fast to ensure those critical medical supplies will be distributed quickly.

By all accounts it’s going to be a herculean task. Of the approximately 250 different vaccines being developed around the world, the frontrunners are being designed with differing requirements for temperature control and handling. This means there will not likely be a single uniform methodology across the global temperature-controlled supply chain to handle them. As well, because data about the vaccines’ stability under different environmental conditions will be lacking, they will likely be subject to even stricter controls than normal to ensure the maximum viability and reach.

Due to the urgency of the pandemic situation, the bulk of the vaccines produced will likely be carried by air. DHL estimates that ensuring ensure global coverage for the next two years will require some 200,000 movements by pallet on 15,000 flights. “Covid-19 vaccine delivery will be one of the biggest logistical challenges in modern history. No one company can own the end-to-end vaccine supply chain,” said Neel Jones Shah, TIACA board member and global head of airfreight at Flexport. “We need to start working together now to ensure the industry is prepared when the time comes.”

That’s why international bodies like The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA) and Pharma-Aero are working together to develop best practices for vaccine transport as the products become available, hopefully in early 2021. Pharma.Aero is a non-profit organization headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, that aims to develop reliable end-to-end air transportation for life science and medtech shippers.

Together, the two organizations will work to provide the air cargo industry with clearer demands, expectations and supply chain requirements for transporting the vaccines. This will cover critical trade lanes, air cargo capacity, handling and storage, track and trace requirements, and more. The program is also expected to help vaccine shippers gain more understanding about the capabilities of logistics players. It is expected to share information and best practices with the industry by the end of 2020.

In the meantime, however, what’s clear is there will be a scramble to find enough supplies in a few key areas of the supply chain. First is temperature-controlled packaging. In its research DHL suggests a need for almost 15 million cooling boxes and the required volume of cooling bricks or dry ice to safely transport 10 billion vaccine doses. “Even under aggressive assumptions, both the availability of suitable packaging as well as the maximum-allowed quantities of dry ice in air cargo transport could potentially limit shipment possibilities in certain cases if the preparations are not made in time,” DHL said in its paper “Delivering Pandemic Resilience”.

DHL also points out that the last mile complexity for temperature controlled pharma – ensuring consistent temperature management for individual boxes/parcels – is much greater than it is for one pallet shipper. As well, handling the frozen product, that may need to be at minus 80 Celsius, requires special equipment – such as gloves – and processes to avoid injury. A vast number of couriers and consignees need to be informed or even trained to ensure safe handling.

Likewise, third-party logistics providers are facing a crunch. “It’s going to be a tough one because you’re talking about millions and millions of vaccines, which require coolers, which require massive infrastructure,” said Peter Tostevin, SCI’s vice-president of healthcare. “And I can guarantee you right now that there isn’t a 3PL out there that is going to be able to manage that demand.”

Tostevin added that the 3PLs that want the vaccine business are busy expanding in that space right now in order to be ready, but he feels the majority are not prepared because of the infrastructure involved in ensuring temperature control.

Some are taking lessons from the initial surge in demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical equipment at the start of the pandemic. A key lesson learned was the importance of collaboration and communication between governments and service providers to ensure supply lines stay open.

“In the Americas, the shipment of PPE and medical supplies took priority and represented a great portion of our total shipments during the first months of the pandemic, with most of these coming from Asia,” said Larry St Onge, president for the global life sciences and healthcare sector at DHL. “Then came the test kits for Covid-19. These urgent supplies required an extended network that was flexible enough to meet this demand in various parts of the world, a strong base of temperature-controlled services and a reliable medical supply chain. Once these vaccines are ready to be shipped, a close partnership between the public and private sectors would ensure that these highly sensitive shipments preserve their integrity and are successfully delivered around the globe.”