Menu Close

Safely transporting the COVID-19 vaccine will put the supply chain to the ultimate test

Article submitted by Agility Logistics – TIACA Trustee Member



Written by: Eric ten Kate, Vice President, Agility GIL Life Sciences

With researchers working tirelessly to develop a vaccine to fight COVID-19, logistics companies like Agility are busy preparing for the challenges that will be raised by the delivery of this precious cargo. Most of these resources will need to be moved by air, placing constraints on cold storage and air freight capacity, and putting the latest transportation technology to the ultimate test.

Specialized storage

The strict temperature controls required by vaccinations raises significant challenges for freight forwarders. The temperature conditions required for different vaccines range from 2 to 8°C, frozen (-20°C), deep frozen (-80°C) and cryo-frozen (-150°C). Due to the range in active ingredients, it is likely that different vaccines will have different control requirements. The majority of medicines being used to treat COVID-19 in infected patients, meanwhile, fall within existing supply chain conditions, ranging from 15 to 25°C.

Strategically located cold chain facilities will be in high demand. Due to the short shelf-life of vaccines, companies will require cross-docks where vaccines can be safely stored between each leg of their journey. Around the world, warehouse space is being retrofitted to suit this purpose and some large freight forwarders are opening new temperature-controlled sites.

The degree of difficulty in getting vaccines to the public will depend partly on the availability of these facilities around the world. For example, the shortage of cold storage at African airports will raise issues with transporting vaccinations to this region. The World Health Organization, UNICEF, the Gates Foundation and USAID, among others, will have an important role to play in ensuring this lack of storage doesn’t stop the vaccination being distributed worldwide.

Air freight capacity

Vaccines are normally produced in batches of 100,000 to 150,000 doses a day. That sounds like a big number, but we have to bear in mind that the global need will be for up to 8 billion doses.

Once vaccines become more common and available, like a flu shot, the situation will be somewhat different. At that point, we may see in-country storage of products with an extended shelf life, as governments and health ministries seek to build safety stocks.

Combine this with the decline in air freight capacity due to the reduced number of passenger flights around the world, the renewed increase in demand for shipments of PPE globally and, of course, the normal demand for life science products. These different products will all be fighting for capacity. Prioritization will be key to ensure that vaccines that must travel by air take priority over PPE, which can go by ocean.

The vital role of technology 

Since these high-value vaccines will be traveling around the world, product security will be crucial. Cold chain tracking and tracing and IoT will play a key role in temperature-controlled transport and storage solutions, and also in managing risks such as product integrity and risk of theft.

Products must be traceable at all stages of the supply chain, from factory to patient. The use of serialization via barcodes and QR codes on each individual product should mean that anyone can scan the code and find out where exactly it was made and where it is headed.

The question is, can our current serialization infrastructure handle this? It is not a globally deployed system, and we have never had to assemble and store this volume of data before. In the context of the COVID vaccine, we’re talking about up to 8 billion individuals and billions of doses. We will be tracking active ingredients as well as tracking vials, syringes, needles, labels, caps and other packaging materials. Then we have to track doses, batches, containers, and temperature data.

We haven’t seen anything on this scale before, and we need to prepare as much as possible now so that we can handle it as efficiently as possible when the time comes.

For more information on Agility Logistics visit their website.

Read more Cargo Pulse articles.