The mission of vaccine distribution has now started and supply chains throughout the world will contribute logistics expertise and capabilities to make the vaccine accessible. But distribution at super-cold temperatures will test cold chains to the very limit. Michelle Mooney investigates.
Stock markets rallied in November 2020 as Pfizer and BioNTech announced some heartening news when it comes to a Covid-19 vaccination. This was followed by two further vaccines, one from Moderna and a further from University of Oxford & AstraZeneca.
Now 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.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS National Medical Director, states that as the vaccine is very delicate and needs to be handled in certain conditions, it is important to get it right: “It [the vaccine]needs to be stored at -70C before being thawed out and can only be moved four times within that cold chain before being used.”
The Department for Health and Social Care has been working closely with the NHS, as well as with the rest of the entire UK government to safely deliver the vaccine across the UK. The DHSC also said that the distribution will be difficult because of the scale and importance of the cargo, however, it is working closely with partners across the health system to put in place robust measures for the end of the Brexit transition period. The UK government has installed contingency measures to ensure the vaccine freight will continue unimpeded.
All vaccine candidates for supply and onward deployment have clear supply chain plans that cover materials, manufacturing, transport, storage and distribution.
CitySprint is one such 3PL in the UK that is already working on supporting vaccine distribution projects with its clients. Darren Taylor, Business Solutions Director at CitySprint says “This vital task is a responsibility for the whole industry. Getting it right will require transparent solutions and an openness to collaboration from the outset. By its very nature, this cargo is precious and careful consideration needs to be applied to quality of service delivery, monitoring and reporting around its movement.”
Taylor says that logistics providers will need to prioritise teams to redeploy and backfill carefully, while ensuring that existing supply chains are not adversely affected.
“At CitySprint, we have a long history of sample and testing work through our specialist healthcare business, and we’re already working on support for vaccine distribution projects with clients. We’re able to provide resources to help backfill business-as-usual work, along with dedicated, security cleared and trained drivers to support the first mile and local support of final mile distribution.”
Robert Fordree, Executive Vice President at Menzies Aviation, says tht due to the significant focus the cargo industry has placed on pharmaceutical handling in recent years, much of the expected infrastructure and certification for the distribution of pharmaceutical goods is already in place at key airports.
“The most important factor, and biggest challenge, is keeping the vaccine at the appropriate temperature whilst transporting it quickly through airport networks. This is where the cargo handlers’ experience will be essential, particularly in locations that do not have extensive experience of handling vaccines.”
Fordree says that there are very few providers who can deliver solutions for the carriage of cargos at significantly below freezing temperatures and aircraft holds cannot be set to this type of temperature, therefore Menzies needs to ensure it is able to transport the vaccine safely in specialised containers or bespoke receptacles from the manufacturers to enable a constant temperature at this range.
“As well as confirming our temperature control capabilities at each location we are liaising with airport authorities to facilitate collections and deliveries to/from aircraft side for the vaccines and avoid the need for storage,” he says.
Internationally, Kuehne + Nagel – itself in the midst of a company-wide transformation that includes a focus on worldwide pharmaceutical and healthcare supply chains – told investors back in October 2020 that it is already prepared for the distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine, and the first contracts related to production of a potential vaccine had already been signed by its contract logistics division.
To that end, December saw the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs of North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany’s most populous state) contract Kuehne + Nagel for the logistics of Covid-19 vaccines.
Vaccine doses are being delivered to the state’s central distribution centre operated by Kuehne + Nagel, stored in temperature pods, repackaged in smaller quantities and distributed daily in a quality-assured manner to 53 vaccination centres and other healthcare facilities throughout North Rhine-Westphalia.
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.
DHL started its international distribution of Covid-19 vaccine on 9th December 2020 with Israel receiving the first batch of the vaccine via flights operated by DHL Express and DHL Global Forwarding.
Prior to vaccine approval UPS set 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. 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. It began shipments of the Pfizer’s and BioNTech’s vaccine in the US on 12th December.
Wes Wheeler, president of UPS Healthcare. “We have spent months strategising with Operation Warp Speed officials and our healthcare customers on efficient vaccine logistics, and the time has arrived to put the plan into action.”
Operation Warp Speed is a public-private partnership between various US government departments to deliver a Covid-19 vaccine.
Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines will originate from UPS storage sites in Michigan and Wisconsin. The vaccines will be transported to UPS Worldport facilities in Louisville, where they will be expedited by air onNext Day Air to select destinations, including hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities, to inoculate healthcare workers.
FedEx too began shipments of the vaccine in the United States on 12th December. It has some 90 cold chain facilities across the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe and plan to open additional facilities in coming years. It says that in addition to its existing cold chain capabilities in support of the vaccine distribution, it is also exploring a combination of additions including stationary freezers, temperature-controlled ocean containers, and refrigerated trailers.
Meanwhile has working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the USA, to “significantly increased” its capability to carry dry ice aboard its cargo aircrafts, allowing it to service more healthcare shippers. On average FedEx is now transporting 500,000 dry ice shipments a month and can now more now move critical healthcare shipments, such as the vaccines, faster “between more than 100 countries on its Boeing 767s and 777s.
One vital piece of equipment will be dry ice and dry ice manufacturer Cold Jet says that pharmaceutical and logistics companies, as well as governmental agencies, need to create an ultra-low temperature cold chain in order to keep vaccines below sub-zero temperatures. Currently, it says, the existing refrigerated transport infrastructure and supply chain is not prepared to handle these types of shipments. Dry ice, made of recycled CO2, it believes will be essential in the safe distribution of every single dose of the vaccine.
“Dosing dry ice directly into temperature-controlled thermal shippers is the only way to maintain that temperature level during transit and storage,” said Wim Eeckelaers, Managing Director, EMEA at Cold Jet. At all points in the vaccine transportation and distribution cold chain, the vaccine needs to maintain temperature.
Brexit doom looms?
If a trade deal with the European Union was not agreed upon before transitional arrangements terminated at the end of December, then transport between Europe and Britain – at the time of writing – was set to encounter severe disruption, says Alain Breillatt, Vice President, Product Marketing, Logistyx Technologies.
“Even if an arrangement is reached in time, the UK Global Tariff (UKGT) will replace the EU’s Common External Tariff which applies until 31 December 2020. This new tariff will apply to all goods imported into the UK unless an exception is applied. Given the UK government’s declared prioritisation for shipment of Covid-19 vaccines we can expect that these shipments as well as many Covid related medications and supplies will likely be granted some form of tariff relief.
“Under the UK’s current exceptions for Covid-19, businesses can apply for relief to pay no import duty and VAT on medicines, protective equipment, and relevant medical devices imported from non-EU countries,” he says. “The government has gone so far as to declare that they will provide military airlifts if necessary, to ensure that the shipments are not delayed due to any Brexit disruptions.”