Insights / Industry Perspectives / Navigating the challenges of COVID-19 vaccine transportation


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Navigating the challenges of COVID-19 vaccine transportation

Countries worldwide are ordering monumental amounts of COVID-19 vaccines to inoculate as much of the population as possible. Safe and efficient vaccine transportation is the logistics industry’s biggest challenge in a long time.

As the FDA approves more vaccine variants, the transportation and logistics industry will need to stay innovative to keep up with the demand. What are the main vaccine transportation challenges companies are up against?

Different vaccines, different vaccine transportation needs

You do not need to be an expert in transportation and logistics to know that transporting vaccines to eight billion people worldwide is a colossal task. Even if 100% of the vaccines were coming from the same source, it would still be one of the greatest logistics challenges in recent history.

As of February 2021, 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 get FDA approval 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 temperature-controlled thermal shippers that ensure the consistency of conditions from the laboratory to the point of vaccination.

Pfizer also utilizes GPS-enabled thermal sensors, allowing the company to proactively prevent temperature deviations. 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 this with the challenges of transporting the Moderna vaccine. While the US-produced vaccine does not require the same extreme freezing temperatures as the Pfizer vaccine, it still needs extreme temperatures to be successful. Moderna also requires direct shipping from point A to point of use as well as temperature checks and other forms of tracking.

While all the vaccines produced in the fight against COVID-19 have the same desired outcome, each requires its own unique set of vaccine transportation and logistical guidelines. This makes it difficult for the industry to set a baseline and work from there. The industry needs to approach each vaccine as a standalone product, adding time when time is of the essence.

The vital role of technology in vaccine transportation

Vaccine distribution and logistics simply wouldn’t be possible without technology. The rate of technological innovation in the 21st century is the main reason why comparisons between the COVID-19 pandemic and previous pandemics are largely irrelevant. In the modern world, many technology solutions are in development long before problems arise.

Shipping the different COVID-19 vaccines will require an understanding of transportation and logistics software, as well as AI and the Internet of Things (IoT).  

The range of technological innovations in the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines is impressive. Each box of vaccines includes a GPS tracker to ensure the vaccines get from point A to B. The vaccines also include scannable barcodes to confirm delivery.

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

Providers can use technology to complete more tasks in a shorter timeframe, ensuring a clearer path in the vaccine transportation journey.

Adhering to guidance on vaccine transportation

The guidelines for COVID-19 vaccine transportation offer their own unique set of challenges, such as regulations on temperature monitoring and the use of dry ice.

Transporters can use dry ice (a frozen form of carbon dioxide) to store vaccines at extremely low temperatures. But dry ice can be extremely dangerous, and not following guidelines when using it can have grave consequences, from convulsions to death.

EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky outlined the importance of vaccine transportation regulations, 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 mandatory.

Staying within the lines of compliance and regulations

Moving precious cargo is the transportation industry’s bread and butter, but moving COVID-19 vaccines is a whole new level. There is a range of factors at play, from temperature awareness to transportation safety.

Although the extremely low temperatures required by several vaccines have already been mentioned, the sensitivity of this matter is worth considering in more detail.

The Pfizer vaccine requires specific temperatures, and any deviation will render the vaccine unusable. Strict compliance is fundamental to the vaccination’s success, and this extends to storing the vaccines at the point of use.

Many of the vaccines require specialized storage, and innovative logistics solutions are designed to ensure compliance while in cargo. Pfizer’s temperature-controlled thermal shippers are a notable example of maintaining compliance with the vaccine. In the fight against COVID-19, vaccine transportation integrity is a key tenant of success.

Security concerns over COVID-19 vaccine transportation

The expedited nature of vaccine transportation makes it an obvious target for criminals. It didn’t take long for Moderna vaccine vials to go missing from a hospital in Florida.

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 vaccine transportation.

The unique circumstances created by the pandemic also offer new challenges for 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, and it only takes one slip-up for a batch of COVID-19 vaccines to go missing, putting a life-or-death process in jeopardy. It has never been more important to provide in-depth vetting of drivers and helmsmen and to utilize multiple forms of shipment tracking.

Embracing data loggers and cargo tracking devices

Storing and transporting vaccines safely at the correct temperature depends on accurate supply chain management.

By deploying temperature data loggers at every stage of the journey, providers can stay updated on every change from beginning to end, allowing for real-time tracking. COVID-19 vaccines must make it to their destination in undamaged form, and data loggers go a long way to ensuring this.

Without vaccine tracking, providers cannot confirm that the vaccines have reached all those who needed them. Cargo tracking devices and data collection via the cloud are essential in vaccine transportation.

The challenge of cross-border coordination

Getting to the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel depends on global cooperation.

Unfortunately, vaccine transportation could easily devolve into a mad scramble, putting less economically and politically powerful countries at a disadvantage. Effectively distributing vaccines across vast territories requires a balance between communication and decisive leadership.

The early results across Europe show how difficult this may prove to be. European countries may be a part of one economic union. Nevertheless, the EU’s vaccination numbers trail both the UK and Serbia, countries at opposite ends of the continent with vastly different vaccination transportation strategies. At a time when coordination and cooperation are essential, Europe is experiencing a dangerous breakdown in teamwork.

And what about the drive to vaccinate the United States population? At the time of writing, the US has administered at least one dose of a vaccine to 25% of its population, with the results varying from state to state. There are countless reasons for this – population size and age, access, and local politics – but it still highlights the challenge of vaccinating a massive number of people.

For transportation and logistics companies, the global rollout of COVID-19 is its greatest challenge in modern times, and failure is not an option.

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