The logistics industry is working at break-neck speed to put in place plans for the global distribution of the much-anticipated coronavirus vaccine, the distribution of which has just begun.
The past months saw logistics players announcing their preparations for the Covid-19 vaccine distribution from investments in cold chain facilities, setting-up task forces to oversee vaccine transport plans, and company tie-ups within the sector as pharmaceutical companies race to develop a vaccine in record-time for the coronavirus that has killed over 1.6 million people worldwide and infected more than 70 million others.
Apart from preparations, however, industry players also noted challenges in rolling out an end-to-end logistics chain for the worldwide vaccine distribution. Companies cited capacity constraints, lack of temperature monitoring across the supply chain, cool chain concerns in airports, and last-mile delivery hurdles as billions of doses of the vaccine are expected to be transported in what will be the largest airlift of any single commodity.
“Logistics providers are challenged to establish medical supply chains rapidly to deliver vaccines of an unprecedented volume of more than 10 billion doses worldwide – including in regions with less-developed logistics infrastructure,” Leonora Lim, VP of life science and healthcare at DHL Customer Solutions and Innovation, Asia Pacific, told Asia Cargo News.
“There are numerous reports about the tight air freight capacity under these unusual circumstances, which would pose challenges in getting vaccines across borders. In addition, there would need to have sufficient storage and distribution capabilities on the ground and a robust delivery network to cope with the staggering volume of shipments.”
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said earlier this year that providing a single dose of the vaccine to 7.8 billion people worldwide would fill 8,000 Boeing 747 cargo aircraft and called it the “largest single transport challenge ever.”
DHL said that, given the urgency of the pandemic, vaccines will likely be transported via air freight for longer distances and to ensure global coverage for the next two years. Some 200,000 movements by pallet shippers on 15,000 flights may be needed.
Korean Air echoed the same sentiment on the challenges facing the industry given the requirements needed for such a sensitive and large-scale delivery.
The Seoul-based carrier told Asia Cargo News that it is ready to transport vaccines as it touted its CEIV Pharma certification from IATA and its experience transporting temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals – although it recognized that transporting the vaccine would be “critical.”
“Depending on the type of vaccine, the storage temperature and packaging method are different, and the shipping location, destination, and volume scale are not yet known. Hence, Korean Air is preparing for a wide range of scenarios to be able to quickly respond when the vaccine becomes available,” Korean Air said in a statement.
Nonetheless, the carrier said facilities such as cold storage warehouses are difficult to expand in a short period of time, so it is important to prepare in advance for various situations.
Cool chain capability
DHL’s Lim said transporting the Covid-19 vaccine may need “stringent temperature requirements” with shipping frozen vaccines, probably needing extraordinary measures to be moved in countries with less developed logistics.
She noted that vaccine distribution would be easier in countries with the “most-advanced” logistics systems – though home to only one-third of the world’s population – while it could be a challenge, in countries with less-developed logistics sectors where approximately 3 billion people live.
“Currently, large parts of Africa, South America and Asia could not be readily supplied at scale due to lack of cold-chain logistics capacity suitable for life science products,” Lim told Asia Cargo News.
A number of vaccines are coming on the market at about the same time, with varying transportation and storage requirements. The vaccine developed by Moderna, for example, must be stored at a temperature of at least –20°C, a temperature easily achieved by most hospital and pharmacy freezers, while the offering from Pfizer and BioNTech requires the vaccine to be stored at –70°C.
Eric Ten Kate, Agility’s VP of Life Sciences said vaccines in general are shipped under different temperature conditions ranging from 2 to 8°C, frozen (-20°C), deep frozen (-80°C) and cryo-frozen (-150°C), but requirements for the Covid-19 vaccine could be different.
Industry specialists warn that the new vaccine, with relatively unstable molecules, will have to be stored at freezing temperatures of up -18°C or below posing a “logistics challenge” to the existing medical supply chain that conventionally distributes vaccines at +2 to +8°C.
Airlines are limited how much dry ice – frozen carbon dioxide – can be carried on any flight, as dry ice turns to gas over time and replaces the breathable air in the airplane. A DHL white paper on vaccine transport notes that a widebody aircraft can carry no more than 1 tonne of dry ice.
“We are likely to have a situation where we have multiple vaccines, but each vaccine has its own temperature requirements,” Kate said. “People think there is one vaccine and one set of shipping parameters and temperatures. That’s not the case.”
He warned that aside from cool chain limitations, there are also worries of shortage in temperature-controlled containers, coupled with the decline in air freight capacity and renewed increase in demand for PPE globally that could cause competition in capacity.
“What we do not want is to have vaccines that absolutely must go by air – and possibly costing US$2,500/vial – competing for space with 5-cent masks that could go by ocean,” the Agility executive added.
The major pain point for the vaccine distribution will likely be in Africa, where cold storage is still scarce.
“Getting vaccines to the public will be difficult in Africa. It’s more problematic because there’s hardly any cold storage at airports in Africa. People are starting to understand that we need to build things up, predominantly in Africa, to be able to handle it,” Kate said, also citing the short shelf life and sensitivity of vaccines.
“Manufacturers produce doses, and they are shipped immediately. Normally, it would be 96 hours from factory to patient. Everything being produced is going to be consumed right away. The vaccines in trials are being used immediately. So this product is not going to sit on the shelf for very long.”
In Asia, Korean Air said despite anticipated difficulties in moving the vaccine, there is enough capacity to serve the region.
“Asia is currently leading the world in terms of cargo transportation capacity. It will be challenging, but we will overcome obstacles concerning air transportation capacity and operations,” Korean Air said.
Meanwhile, industry players cited the need for governments and the logistics sector to work together to ensure the safe distribution of vaccines.
“It is necessary for governments to standardize and clarify transport regulations and procedures (such as Customs and security issues) for the vaccines to ensure their swift delivery,” Korean Air said.
“The government’s collaboration with relevant organizations regarding vaccine purchase plans and import and export volumes, and its sharing of such information with us in advance, is essential.”
Partnerships, government support
DHL also noted the importance of partnerships for securing critical medical supplies during health emergencies.
“Building a partnership network in advance of a global health emergency is important to enabling a timely, effective response,” Lim said. In their case, DHL established partnerships with local authorities across 220 countries and territories, with international health institutes and with NGOs.
“While we have also built a solid foundation in the life sciences and healthcare sector, we have established a global cross-divisional task force to oversee the readiness and upscaling of our current capabilities such as our competence centers, passive cooling solutions, including supply of dry ice, etc,” Lim said.
In some cases, she added that governments and NGOs may need to implement special measures to ensure vaccine distribution as capacity would have to be increased and scaled in order to reach the global population.
Separately, IATA noted the need for countries to open up their borders and help remove any obstacle to ensure that vaccines get transported as fast as possible.
“While there are still many unknowns (number of doses, temperature sensitivities, manufacturing locations, etc.), it is clear that the scale of activity will be vast, that cold chain facilities will be required and that delivery to every corner of the planet will be needed,” IATA said.
“If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised,” IATA’s director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said.
By Charlee C. Delavin
Asia Cargo News | Hong Kong