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Mar 09, 2021

The Challenges of Distributing and Transporting COVID-19 Vaccines

The global rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations is well underway, but don’t make the mistake of assuming that the pandemic is over just yet. Safely transporting the different types of vaccines is the biggest challenge faced by the transportation and logistics industry in a long time, an incredible test that simply must be aced. Countries are ordering monumental amounts of vaccinations for immediate use in a desperate drive to inoculate as much of the population as possible. Standing between the world and relative freedom just happens to be the largest vaccine supply chain that the world has ever seen. No big deal, right?

And, of course, this is only the beginning. As more vaccine variants are approved for use the challenges will only increase, and the innovative qualities of transportation and logistics software will be put to the test like never before. What are the main challenges these companies must face?

Different vaccines, different transportation needs

You don’t need to be an expert in transportation and logistics to work out that transporting a variety of vaccines to nearly eight billion people in all four corners of the globe is a monumental task. This is true no matter how you approach or view it. Even if 100% of the vaccines were coming from the same source, it would still represent one of the greatest challenges faced by the modern world.

As of late February 2021, at least seven different vaccinations across three platforms had been rolled out globally, with more than 200 additional vaccine candidates in development. The three platforms in question (using a whole virus or bacterium, focusing on parts that trigger the immune system, genetic material) all require different forms of transportation and storage. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first to be approved for regular use, but the extreme temperatures in which the vaccine must be stored (between −112 and −76 °F up to five days before vaccination) present a serious logistical challenge. For this to work, Pfizer developed a series of packaging and storage innovations, specially-designed temperature-controlled thermal shippers that can ensure the consistency of conditions from the laboratory to the point of vaccination.

The innovations continue. Pfizer utilizes  GPS-enabled thermal sensors that are constantly monitored in a single location, allowing the company to proactively prevent deviations, nipping problems in the bud before they have a chance to fester. The thermal shippers themselves can subsequently be used as temporary storage (for up to 30 days), provided they are refilled with dry ice every five days.

Compare these issues with the challenges faced in transporting the Moderna vaccine. While the US-produced vaccine doesn’t need to be kept at the same extreme freezing temperatures as the Pfizer vaccine, it still requires relatively extreme temperatures to be successful. This also means direct shipping from point A to point of use as well as intricate details and logistical efficiency, covering temperature checks and other forms of tracking.

While the many different vaccines produced in the fight against COVID-19 have the same desired outcome, each requires its own unique set of transportation and logistical circumstances, depriving the industry of setting a standard base and working from there. Each vaccine needs to be approached as a standalone product, adding time when time is of the essence. As far as logistical challenges go, they don’t come much bigger than this.

The vital role that technology must play

This incredible feat of distribution and logistics simply wouldn’t be possible without the help of technology. The rate of technological development and innovation in the 21st century is one of the main reasons why comparisons between the COVID-19 pandemic and other pandemics in history are largely irrelevant. In the modern world, many solutions are in development long before the problems have even begun to appear.

Shipping the many different types of COVID-19 vaccine will require a deft understanding of transportation and logistics software, not to mention a total embrace of AI and the Internet of Things (IoT). A vast range of bodies must be in perfect sync throughout the process, from healthcare providers to national governments, and every instance of miscommunication is a wasted moment in a race against time.

The range of technological innovations playing a key role in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines is staggering. This is a worldwide operation, and each box of vaccine is equipped with a GPS tracker to ensure the jabs get from A to B, and further confirmation is provided by the scanning of barcodes upon delivery, allowing providers to ensure successful delivery and stay on top of theft in the process.

Temperature sensors linked to the IoT also play a huge role in the transportation of COVID-19 vaccines, making sure that they make the journey to point of use without deviating outside of the prescribed limits. AI and analysis tools are also being utilized to predict potential delays and provide alternative routing options, with low-energy Bluetooth chips sending real-time data for analysis on the cloud to optimize distribution.

Technology is playing a key role in ensuring that the various COVID-19 vaccines make their way around the world smoothly and can be deployed successfully, allowing more tasks to be completed in a smaller timeframe, ensuring a clear chain of custody at all points of the journey.

Adhering to guidance on vaccine transportation

The temperatures at which various COVID-19 vaccines must be transported and kept offer their own unique set of challenges, not least the need for following guidelines and regulations on the use of dry ice. This frozen form of carbon dioxide is vital in ensuring the vaccines are kept at the extremely low temperatures required, but this isn’t merely a case of having a product and deploying it. Dry ice is seriously dangerous, and not following guidelines when using it can have the most serious of consequences, from convulsions to death. EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky outlined the vital contribution of this guidance to the global vaccination effort, stressing the importance of air transport in saying “…due to its speed and ability to reach relatively remote geographical areas, air transport is an essential component in the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines. Our guidance is to ensure the safety of all involved in the transportation process.” It bears repeating;  following regulations and guidance are not optional, it is obligatory.

Staying within the lines on compliance and regulations

The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly the number one crisis faced by the world in the short-term, so it stands to reason that strict compliance and intricate requirements for the transportation of vaccines are the norms. The transportation industry is built on moving precious cargo, but moving COVID-19 vaccines is a whole new level. There is a huge range of factors at play here, from temperature awareness to transportation safety. Leaving no stone unturned is paramount to the success of the vaccination program.

The extremely low temperatures required by several vaccines have been mentioned several times already, but the sensitivity of this matter is worth looking at in more detail. The Pfizer vaccine in particular requires definite temperatures and any deviation outside of those will render the vaccine unusable. Transporting the vaccine outside of the required temperatures simply isn’t an option; strict compliance is fundamental to the vaccination’s success. This extends to storing the vaccines at the point of use. The unique set of circumstances created by the pandemic do not end with the virus itself, they continue with the transportation, storage, and distribution of the vaccinations.

Specialized storage is required for many of the vaccines, and innovative logistics solutions are being devised to ensure compliance while in cargo. Pfizer’s temperature-controlled thermal shippers are a great example of pushing the envelope to ensure compliance with the vaccine requirements. In the fight against COVID-19, vaccine integrity is one of the fundamental building blocks of potential success.

Security concerns over the transportation of COVID-19 vaccines

As with anything of this immense value, the transportation safety of COVID-19 vaccines is of optimum importance. This is not the type of cargo that can be easily replaced should it go missing in transit. Getting vaccines from laboratory to point of use is a mountain that requires all manner of transportation and logistics solutions, and the expedited nature of the process makes it an obvious target for criminal enterprise. It didn’t take long for Moderna vaccine vials to go missing from a hospital in Florida. Precious cargo always attracts attention, after all.

With that in mind, should transportations of COVID-19 vaccines be accompanied by security escorts, or is simple monitoring of the shipment enough to guarantee nothing goes awry? Potential threats to the COVID-19 vaccine are numerous, be they attempts by terrorist organizations to attack storage and transports or the ubiquitous shadow of pharmaceutical theft, a major issue in countries such as the US, Brazil, Italy, and Russia. Being extra vigilant against any such crime is a must for this process.

The unique set of circumstances produced by the COVID-19 pandemic also offers a new set of challenges to security systems. The surge in e-Commerce during the pandemic has already added to the workload of logistics software and transportation management. A heavier workload often leads to mistakes being made and holes being exposed, and it only takes one opportunity for a batch of COVID-19 vaccines to go missing, putting a life-or-death process in serious jeopardy. It has never been more important to ensure in-depth and efficient vetting of drivers and helmsmen, as well as providing multiple forms of tracking for shipments. One facet simply is not enough. Concerns of a black market for COVID-19 vaccines are very real and ensuring that they don’t come into existence is vital.

Embracing data loggers and cargo tracking devices

Accurate supply chain management is an absolute must in this crisis, and the need to ensure that vaccines are stored and transported safely at the correct temperature is mandatory. Luckily, transportation and logistics solutions have technology on their side. By deploying temperature data loggers at every stage of the journey, providers can stay up to date on every change from beginning to end, allowing for real-time solutions as soon as they are needed. COVID-19 vaccines must make it to their destination, but it is just as important that they do so in undamaged form, and data loggers can go a long way to ensuring this.

Throughout this unprecedented rollout, vaccine tracking is critical. Without it, providers will not be able to ensure that the vaccinations become available to all those who need them, scuppering the effectiveness of those already given. Cargo tracking devices, therefore, become much more than simple tricks for completed journeys; they become guardians of new hope. The role that the cloud and data collection have to play in the fight against COVID-19 cannot be overstated. Staying on top of what has been done, how it has been done, and what happens next is the only way that this war can be won.

Cross-border coordination is not as easy as it might be

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven to be a truly global catastrophe, and truly global cooperation is going to be required before we can begin to sense a light at the end of the tunnel. It will not take much for this process to devolve into a scramble for vaccines, a race in which less economically and politically powerful countries will get left behind. A balance between communication and decisive leadership will need to be found, ensuring that the correct decisions are taken at the correct time to distribute vaccines across vast swathes of territory.

The range of early results across Europe shows how difficult this may prove to be. The smallest of all the continents, Europe also benefits from the majority of its nations being a part of one economic union. Despite these supposed benefits, the European Union’s vaccination numbers trail both the United Kingdom and Serbia, countries at opposite ends of the continent with markedly different vaccination strategies. At a time when coordination and cooperation are essential, Europe is experiencing a dangerous breakdown in teamwork.

And what of the drive to vaccinate the vast population of the US? At the time of writing, the United States has administered at least one dose of a vaccine to around 25% of its population, but the results vary from state to state. Leading the way is New Mexico, who despite only offering the vaccination to those over the age of 75 (along with some essential workers and high-risk adults) has managed to cover some 23% of its population already, while neighboring  Texas has ticked off only 12% of its people, despite having a wider net. There are countless reasons for this – population size and age, access, local politics, and more – but it still shines a light on the challenge of vaccinating such a massive number of people across a monumental territory.

As many have stated, the global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines is arguably the greatest challenge that the logistics industry has ever faced, in modern times at least. This is simply unprecedented, and the challenges faced have never been seen on this scale before. Failure is not an option.

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