The state of supply chains: Pharma and the vaccine race part one
It will be an airlift like no other to deliver COVID-19 vaccines worldwide, with estimates of 15,000 flights needed to deliver the precious phials
Neel Jones Shah, global head of airfreight at digital freight forwarder Flexport, neatly sums up the challenge: “The reality of the situation is that COVID-19 is going to be the biggest product launch in the history of mankind.” He thinks it will be a larger scale version of a new smartphone launch, “when there is a big sucking sound and all the airfreight capacity goes towards moving that single product”.
Jones Shah is also a board member at The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA), which is joining forces with Pharma.Aero, a Brussels-based non-profit organization for life science and medtech shippers, to prepare air cargo industry for the COVID-19 vaccine.
In an air cargo vaccine logistics webinar, Jones Shah pointed out that a large part of the global passenger aircraft fleet is still grounded and that the bellyholds in passenger jets account for 50% of all airfreight capacity: “That means the airfreight industry is in an undercapacity situation.”
A crisis in capacity?
IATA estimates that the global route network has been reduced “dramatically” from the pre- COVID level of 24,000 city pairs.
In the TIACA and Pharma.Aero webinar, strong concern was expressed over the current state of air cargo readiness for the upcoming COVID-19 vaccines transportation, with only 28% of the industry feeling well prepared for it today.
Only with a strong and transparent dialogue between pharmaceutical and air cargo sectors, governments, non-governmental organizations and healthcare institutions can we overcome these challenges. The sooner, the better
Emir Pineda, Member of TIACA’s Board of Director and co-lead of the Sunrays project, initiated by TIACA and Pharma.Aero, said “We as an industry are as strong as our weakest link. To move the needle on industry readiness, we need to ensure everyone is engaged and informed.
“Only with a strong and transparent dialogue between pharmaceutical and air cargo sectors, governments, non-governmental organizations and healthcare institutions can we overcome these challenges. The sooner, the better.”
Delivering the vaccines – 250 are in development across seven platforms – will involve a massive global logistics effort, maintaining a complex global supply chain for temperature and time sensitive pharma products.
Just one temperature excursion – the jargon for exceeding a product’s temperature stability limit - could render a vaccine consignment useless or, if not detected, life threatening.
All this has to be done without disrupting the medicines supply chain for existing conditions such as cancer treatments or for other vaccines, such as those for influenza, Yellow Fever and meningitis.
The watchwords for the vaccine airlift are preparation and collaboration across the entire supply chain, between manufacturers, freight forwarders, airlines, airport cargo ground handlers and road feeder services, plus government involvement to sweep away potential Customs and infrastructure barriers.
The known unknowns
One of the problems facing logistic companies is that it is hard to prepare when some key metrics are still unknown.
Nathan de Valck, chair at Pharma.Aero, says: “There are a wide range of uncertainties concerning volumes, production and trade lanes, requirements for transport and storage and all of this is affecting the decision-making process and the levels of preparedness.”
The COVID-19 crisis emerged with an unprecedented breadth and impact. It required governments, businesses, and the logistics industry alike to adapt quickly to new challenges
Industry experts have pointed out that airfreight may not be the answer for every country. The location of vaccine production centres may make road transport a better and easier mode for distribution at scale in some geographies.
Global forwarder and express giant DHL, in a joint study with consultants McKinsey, estimates that the global delivery of approximately 10 billion doses of the serum will require 200,000 pallet shipments and 15 million deliveries in cooling boxes as well as 15,000 flights.
Katja Busch, Chief Commercial Officer DHL, said: “The COVID-19 crisis emerged with an unprecedented breadth and impact. It required governments, businesses, and the logistics industry alike to adapt quickly to new challenges.”
Busch added that, as a result of the pandemic, governments have moved towards a more active role in medical supply chains.
Airline representative group IATA has urged governments to begin “careful planning” with industry stakeholders to ensure full preparedness when vaccines for COVID-19 are approved and available for distribution.
The association also warned of “potentially severe capacity constraints” in transporting vaccines by air, saying that providing a single dose to 7.8bn people would fill 8,000 747 freighter aircraft.
In planning their vaccine programs, particularly in the developing world, governments must take very careful consideration of the limited air cargo capacity that is available at the moment
IATA added that land transport will help in vaccine delivery, especially in developed economies with local manufacturing capacity, but warned that vaccines cannot be delivered globally without the “significant” use of air cargo.
IATA’s director general and chief executive, Alexandre de Juniac, said: “Even if we assume that half the needed vaccines can be transported by land, the air cargo industry will still face its largest single transport challenge ever.
“In planning their vaccine programs, particularly in the developing world, governments must take very careful consideration of the limited air cargo capacity that is available at the moment.
“If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised.”
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