Since the first cases of the coronavirus were detected in China last year, plunging the world into unprecedented turmoil, scientists and medical professionals have been racing to find a vaccine and slow the spread. But, as the medical fraternity edges closer, it is becoming increasingly clear that the saviour of lives will be the logistics industry.
A recently released white paper, published by DHL and McKinsey & Co, has underscored the complexities of distributing a sensitive, temperature-controlled vaccine in unprecedented quantities around the world. “The height of the first wave of Covid-19 infections revealed several logistics-related challenges in two links of the supply chain – inbound logistics and distribution. This related particularly to personal protective equipment (PPE), product quality issues, constrained transportation capacity, complex customs processes and regulations increasing the risk of delays, warehousing challenges, and limited transparency regarding stock levels,” reads the report.
Around the world experts are saying that the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine will be one of the greatest logistics challenges ever, not only from a cold chain perspective but also as a high-value commodity that will be highly sought after. Currently there are some 250 candidates for a Covid-19 vaccine in various stages of development.
According to the DHL report the diversity and novelty of these potential vaccines – and the unprecedented speed at which they are being developed – raises multiple questions from a logistics perspective. Firstly, say those in the know, it is a scale problem. Shipping and administering 100 vaccines to 100 people is easy enough, but distributing five billion vaccines to five billion people is totally another considering that the current world logistics network is simply not capable of doing it. Making the matter even more complex is that the frontrunners in the vaccine trials are increasingly saying that once developed and approved, two doses will need to be administered to all people 21 to 28 days apart, effectively doubling the logistical challenge.
To make it even more complex it is believed that the vaccine will have to be stored at temperatures of around -68 degrees Celsius – far colder than the requirements of most vaccines that can be shipped at refrigerated temperature or a wider range of freezing temperatures. Practically this means vaccines will only be able to be distributed by a subset of the cold chain logistics infrastructure which is already a subset of the overall logistical capacity.
Around the world logistics companies have already started investing in and upscaling their cold chain infrastructure. UPS has invested and built two freezer farms at two of its sites, each of which can hold 48 000 vaccines at extremely low temperatures. DHL and FedEx are also investing in sub-zero cold chain capacity. “Even under aggressive assumptions, both the availability of suitable packaging, and the maximum allowed quantities of dry ice in air cargo transport could potentially limit shipment.”
INSERT: The vaccine will have to be stored at temperatures of around -68 degrees Celsius – far colder than the requirements of most vaccines.