Global distribution: Logisticians reckon with 10 billion vaccine doses

The world is eagerly waiting for the first Covid-19 vaccines. When the time comes, things should go quickly – tons of vials should reach their destination as quickly as possible. The logistics industry has positioned itself to ensure this.

The global logistics industry is already preparing for the global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines that could hit the market in the next few months.

Most of the business will be done by the logistics giants Deutsche Post DHL, Fedex, UPS and Kuehne + Nagel, which have pharmaceutical branches and can ensure refrigerated transport. Talks with the pharmaceutical companies have been going on for a long time, according to the logisticians. The task of global distribution is a great challenge, but one is well prepared. Kuehne + Nagel and DHL announced that the first logistics contracts for Covid-19 vaccines have already been concluded.

The crux of the transport is the cooling of the preparations. The vaccine from the companies Biontech from Mainz and Pfizer from the USA, whose development is particularly advanced, requires cooling of minus 70 degrees during transport. Other preparations require minus 20 degrees or temperatures up to plus eight degrees – for the vaccine from the US company Moderna, which is also very well advanced, temperatures above zero degrees are sufficient, according to the company.

Deutsche Post DHL is considering buying several hundred particularly cold freezers (“Ultralow Freezers”) for its warehouse network; “We screen our infrastructure for the capacities to be able to deliver at minus 20 or minus 70 degrees,” says the responsible DHL manager Thomas Ellmann.

This is not new territory for his company, for example there are already 58 such freezers in an interim storage facility on the German-Dutch border. But they are already in use and are already full – even special pharmaceutical substances, vaccines for animals and products for clinical studies have to be stored in the extreme freezing temperatures. From this point of view, one has plenty of experience with transports in such temperatures, says Ellmann.

On the plane and on the truck, the preparations come in plastic boxes with dry ice, i.e. frozen CO2. Such boxes could hold a temperature of minus 70 degrees for up to six days, says the DHL manager.

Up until now, the transport of vaccines and drugs in extremely sub-zero temperatures has been a marginal business for logisticians. “The amount of frozen food that the logistics industry has to deal with because of Covid-19 is a major challenge,” says Ellmann. In the past, preparations against Ebola also had to be transported frozen in large quantities, but Covid-19 has a much larger dimension as a global issue.

He estimates that the logistics industry will send 10 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses in the next two years – some preparations will have to be injected several times, so there are more doses than people on earth. “We’ll have plenty to do,” says the logistics specialist. However, over time, vaccines will also come onto the market that do not have to be frozen for transport, and the requirements for the industry will change and simplify accordingly, the logistician is convinced.

From DHL’s point of view, state actors are also important: Customs clearance must run smoothly and the state and health insurances must master the “last mile” well – that is, the route taken by pharmaceutical products from delivery from the logistician to an authority to vaccination. The federal states are currently considering setting up regional vaccination centers. In any case, as with a normal vaccination, the insured cannot get their vaccine themselves from the pharmacy and bring it to the doctor, or if it is available at the doctor, according to Ellmann. “Neither pharmacy nor doctors have suitable freezer capacities.”

In its “Life Sciences & Healthcare” division, DHL has 9,000 specially trained employees, 150 warehouses and 120 handling centers around the world. The Bonn group does not provide any information on sales.

The logistics group Kuehne + Nagel, based in Switzerland, says it has its own fleet of 200 air-conditioned pharmaceutical trailers, i.e. truck trailers, in Europe. The company also has distribution centers with cooling chambers that are down to minus 20 degrees. “We assume, however, that a temperature of plus 2 to plus 8 degrees Celsius will be sufficient in most cases,” says a company spokesman. Should temperatures of up to 80 degrees Celsius be necessary for transport and storage, “we have solutions for that too”.

UPS is said to have the demand for the transport of vaccines and Covid-19 tests in view and is preparing the network accordingly. From Fedex’s point of view, distribution is one of the greatest challenges the logistics industry has ever faced. “Covid-19 vaccines require extensive logistics expertise so that they can be effectively distributed in large numbers around the world – very different from traditional freight,” says Fedex European chief Karen Reddington. “From suitable temperature control to fast customs clearance: this is anything but ordinary transport.”

Vaccines and other “temperature-controlled” shipments had already been transported. “We are well positioned and are working with manufacturers, distribution centers and authorities to tackle this unprecedented logistics challenge,” says Reddington.

dpa

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