The state of supply chains: Pharma and the vaccine race part two
Maintaining the integrity of vaccine shipments and shipping at scale are set to be huge challenges that need to be overcome as a viable vaccine creeps ever closer
Vaccine trials are now being completed and their developers are releasing findings to a world that is desperately hungry for their solutions. This huge demand is set to be challenging enough to meet (click here to read part one for more on that), but the devil is in the detail here. Pharma companies are going to need to ship fragile vaccines to far-flung destinations and to keep each shipment within strict parameters or face the possibility of an ineffective vaccine being administered to an oft-sceptical population.
A chilling challenge
Some vaccines will be deep frozen, i.e. transported and stored in temperatures up to -80°C, and so pose novel logistics challenges to the existing medical supply chain that conventionally distributes vaccines at 2°–8°C.
The DHL/McKinsey study said that, out of caution, producers of certain vaccines and their logistics providers can choose to adhere to extreme temperature requirements “to ensure that the efficacy of the vaccines is maintained during storage and transport”.
Adding: “However, health authorities, producers and logistics providers would strongly prefer to begin large-scale transport and distribution under the conditions prevalent in pharmaceutical supply chains today (+2 to 8°C or even higher) as long as stability is not compromised.”
Enrica Calonghi, Head of Pharmaceutical Logistics at Air France KLM Martinair Cargo (AFKLMP Cargo), agreed that Covid-19 vaccine distribution is going to be “one more challenge for airfreight” which is why the carrier has established a taskforce for the job.
“We started by asking our customers about their expectations of packaging requirements and of volumes for the vaccines,” said Calonghi. “Based on this research we set up an internal task force involving many different internal departments such as Network and Operations.
“We wanted to find what are the key elements that need to be ready, and, secondly, we are now talking with the two Airports in Amsterdam Schiphol and Paris Charles de Gaulle, because we want a community approach involving customers, trucking companies, ground handling agents and customs.”
Collaboration is important, we need all parties to work together
Calonghi agreed that the first vaccines might be deep frozen: “If they will be shipped with dry ice, there is a limit on the quantity of dry ice per aircraft. It depends on the aircraft type and it can vary, so every airline is now studying this requirement.”
She added: “Collaboration is important, we need all parties to work together; we ask customers to give the shipping information so that the whole supply chain is prepared for the challenge.”
Neel Jones Shah, global head of airfreight at digital freight forwarder Flexport, said: “It’s too early to tell how COVID-19 will impact not only airlines but the pharmaceutical industry. Right now, the airline, pharmaceutical, and logistics industries are focused on how to efficiently move anywhere from 8 billion to 16 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine — the biggest logistical challenge in modern history.
We’re entering a new age of airfreight, one where airlines will need to invest heavily in technology and ground handling operations to catch up to the expectations that shippers have for the industry
“As part of TIACA and Pharma.Aero’s COVID-19 task force, I can tell you that no one company can own vaccine distribution from end-to-end, and it is going to take an intense level of collaboration across the industry for vaccine distribution to be successful.”
Jones Shah continued: “We’re entering a new age of airfreight, one where airlines will need to invest heavily in technology and ground handling operations to catch up to the expectations that shippers have for the industry.
“The investments they make today will enable them and their customers, which includes pharmaceutical companies, to reap the benefits for decades to come.”
Keeping track to keep our cool
Germany’s Lufthansa Cargo also has a vaccine taskforce in place which builds upon its Cool Masterplan, set up four years ago to further enhance its temperature-controlled global network. Among other measures, it focused on extending the Lufthansa Cargo Pharma Hub at Frankfurt Airport, and building dedicated facilities in Munich and Chicago.
Thorsten Braun, head of industry development and product management at Lufthansa Cargo, said: “Our regular focus is on pharmaceuticals including vaccines, however we felt, that it is necessary to create a vaccine task force in order to look into additional measures beyond those that we have in place today. We asked ourselves: what are the concrete product requirements when it comes the transportation of possible Covid-19 vaccines or Covid-19 ingredients for the manufacturing of vaccines?
Vaccine supply chain actors will be shipping to new customers through unfamiliar trade lanes, using new transporters, and using new shipment modes
“First we identified and mapped the different temperature requirements specific to potential COVID-19 vaccines and its ingredients followed by analysing capabilities both on the ground and in the air. This also included an assessment of the volume capabilities given the expected number of shipments.”
Real time monitoring of vaccine shipments in every link of the cool chain will be essential in making sure that the delicate phials are not damaged, either physically or by a temperature excursion
Vidya Subramanian, Vice President of Products at sensor data monitoring specialist Roambee, says “The demand for the COVID-19 vaccine is not specific to a certain demographic or region, unlike traditional vaccines. Vaccine supply chain actors will be shipping to new customers through unfamiliar trade lanes, using new transporters, and using new shipment modes.
COVID-19 vaccines will require shipping at scale from day one
“Vaccines will be distributed to new or unfamiliar storage facilities, in geographies that may not be familiar with modern cold chain management. The vaccine supply chain will be stretched to meet demand at a national, continental and global scale requiring multi-, inter-, and intra-modal means of shipping, all without typical supply chain planning and evaluation periods.”
Adds Subramanian: “COVID-19 vaccines will require shipping at scale from day one. Unlike traditional vaccine supply chains which begin with lower doses shipped to established regions, the COVID-19 vaccine will require full-scale manufacturing and distribution from the start. When combined with the use of unfamiliar networks, the amount of risk entailed in the process is multiplied.
COVID-19 vaccines will require shipping at scale from day one
“These unique challenges will force the industry to rethink traditional approaches to vaccine cold chain and shipment monitoring. COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers and shippers cannot settle for accepting or rejecting goods upon arrival and they cannot rely on touchpoints in the chain of custody to provide information. They will need to act in real-time, take pre-emptive measures and guide people downstream proactively.”
The analyses by IATA and DHL/McKinsey identify similar focus points for a vaccine supply chain, applying the lessons learned from the sudden and rapidly increasing demand for airfreight capacity to move ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE), first from Europe and then from China as Covid-19 took hold across the world.
IATA highlighted preparedness, facilities, security, border processes and capacity, while DHL/McKinsey’s 28 page White Paper assessed Inbound logistics and distribution as major supply-chain pain points, public-private collaboration, emergency response planning, partnership networks, physical logistics infrastructure, IT-enabled supply chain transparency and organisation and resources.
Securing the temperature requirements through the whole supply chain will be a much harder job than transporting PPE material
In terms of airline capacity, Calonghi of AFKLMP Cargo said that, during the Covid-19 crisis, for PPE, the airline group operated 5,500 flights. “For the vaccines distribution, we will make sure we will have the same aircrafts available, as long as it can cover its costs,” she said.
While some observers believe that the PPE airfreight experience is a good playbook for a vaccine airlift, Calonghi cautioned that “securing the temperature requirements through the whole supply chain will be a much harder job than transporting PPE material”.
Lufthansa Cargo has also focused on contingency measures, including the available capacity in the air and on the ground within its global network for vaccine distribution, such as the 8,800 sq m of storage space at its dedicated pharma facility in Frankfurt.
Said Braun: “Besides these contingency measures we also looked at the airfreight capacity within our network and whether we serve certain routes. Our bellyhold network has been affected, but compared to some competitors we have a big network of freighter aircraft, which was recently complemented by another Boeing 777 freighter.
So the question is who is going to succeed and where are they going to produce the vaccine and then who gets the first shot of buying those quantities? That, at the end of the day, will determine the lane and timeline requiring flexibility by the carriers
“We have also assessed how we can, at short notice, re-route this capacity on those lanes where it is needed. At this stage it is difficult to say where these volumes are going to be produced and that is primarily for two reasons. We do not yet know who is going to succeed in being first with a vaccine.”
“So the question is who is going to succeed and where are they going to produce the vaccine and then who gets the first shot of buying those quantities? That, at the end of the day, will determine the lane and timeline requiring flexibility by the carriers, which is key,” summarised Braun.
Overcoming the challenges
There are two types of pharma packaging solutions: active or passive. An active container is powered to adjust the temperature inside the container to keep the specified temperature range. Passive packaging systems are not powered but are insulated to maintain a set temperature range for a specified time.
“Depending on the product requirements our customers can choose between active and passive solutions,” observed Braun. “Depending on packaging of the vaccine in combination with the active or passive solution, the space requirements can vary significantly. Furthermore, dry ice limits need to be considered as well, which may limit the capacity for vaccines per flight. Consequently, it is really hard to predict the number of flights required.
“The positive aspect about the transportation of these pharmaceutical products is that they all fit into lower deck and its common practice to transport those shipments in the belly. However, given the current capacity shortage, pharma shipments are shifting to freighters. The challenge here is to fully utilize the main-deck space.”
We need to make sure that we have containers for all the other medicines that fly and not only vaccines
Calonghi of AFKLMP Cargo has been in talks with its main supplier of active containers suppliers and judges that there are sufficient active containers for the additional business generated by the vaccines.
She said: “We need to make sure that we have containers for all the other medicines that fly and not only vaccines. We have seen in the past few months that in a lot of countries, surgeries have been postponed because there was heavy demand for COVID-19 treatments in hospitals.
“It is in everybody's interest to make sure that this is not happening in the air and that we have sufficient capacity for the vaccines but also for the other types of medicines that are so important for lots of patients around the world.”
Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, told IATA: “Delivering billions of doses of vaccine to the entire world efficiently will involve hugely complex logistical and programmatic obstacles all the way along the supply chain. We look forward to working together with government, vaccine manufacturers and logistical partners to ensure an efficient global roll-out of a safe and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.”