Editor’s blog: Distributing a Covid-19 vaccine at ultra-low temperatures? Logistics has got this!

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Stock markets rallied as Pfizer and BioNTech announced some heartening news when it comes to a Covid-19 vaccination. While it is hopeful to look ahead to a world free from Covid-19, we’ll all be happy and patient to let the scientists do their work in proving its effectiveness.

But once the vaccine is ready to distribute there remains some major logistical challenges in moving and storing millions, indeed billions, of doses at ultra-cold temperatures. It will fall on the backs of the major 3PLs in the world, who have the capacity and capital to build such an infrastructure to deliver safely and efficiently.

To that end, Kuehne + Nagel – itself in the midst of a company-wide transformation that includes a focus on worldwide pharmaceutical and healthcare supply chains – has already told investors it is already prepared for the distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine, and the first contracts related to production of a potential vaccine have already been signed by its contract logistics division.

DHL says that the global delivery of 10 billion doses of serum needs scaled-up medical supply chains. The German 3PL giant says that currently, more than 250 vaccines across seven platforms are being developed and trialled and that stringent temperature requirements (up to -80°C) are likely to be imposed for certain vaccines to ensure that their efficacy is maintained during transportation and warehousing. It says that this poses novel logistics challenges to the existing medical supply chain that conventionally distributes vaccines at -2°C to 8°C.

It says that to provide global coverage of Covid-19 vaccines, up to some 200,000 pallet shipments and approximately 15 million deliveries in cooling boxes as well as some 15,000 flights will be required across the various supply chain set-ups.

UPS is setting up ultra-low temperature freezer farms near air hubs in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Netherlands, which will house a total of 600 deep-freezers that can each hold 48,000 vials of vaccine. Sounds risky? Because large-scale freezer units require maintenance, large amounts of power, huge amounts of space to cool and dissipate the excessive amounts of heat generated? Apparently not… let’s get technical.

UPS explains that a new ultra-low temperature freezer technology has seen rapid adoption.  Incorporating the basic design of the Stirling engine, these ultra-low temperature use a free-piston Stirling engine that requires few moving parts and no oil in the system.

Therefore, it says, the ultra-low temperature are virtually maintenance- and failure-free. Because the engine runs continuously, it maintains a precise steady-state temperature and recovers quickly after a freezer door opens. With this free-piston engine, it can hold more samples in a smaller footprint, use less energy and generate minimal ambient heat.

UPS will also use robots to distribute the vaccine: with robots interfacing with the ultra-low temperature freezers selecting the location, placement and retrieval of doses. Robotic precision will become an essential part of the cold-chain – and distributing a vaccine…

Christopher Walton, Editor, Logistics Manager

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