Express Pharma

COVID-19 vaccine delivery: Prepping for challenge extraordinaire

India will have a very strategic role to play in ensuring universal access to COVID-19 vaccines. All stakeholders must step up their game and eliminate chinks in their supply chain and successfully execute this critical task

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COVID-19 vaccines are likely to be a reality very soon, and the world lives in the belief that it will help vanquish the coronavirus. Yet, as experts rightly point out, ensuring universal access to these vaccines will be a very crucial aspect in the battle strategy against the wily virus which has disrupted lives and livelihoods worldwide. And, supplying billions of COVID-19 vaccine doses efficiently across the globally, with utmost care for their efficacy, when they are approved and available for distribution is going to be the ultimate logistics challenge witnessed until now.

A few weeks earlier, DHL along with McKinsey, published a white paper on ‘Delivering Pandemic Resilience’, which highlights, “To provide global coverage of COVID-19 vaccines, up to ~200,000 pallet shipments and ~15 million deliveries in cooling boxes as well as ~15,000 flights will be required across the various supply chain set-ups.”

The DHL-McKinsey whitepaper also identifies key hurdles in COVID-19 vaccine logistics. Take a look at some of the pain points that the report highlights (Check out Fig 1).

DHL-McKinsey report

Hence, Express Pharma spoke to a few players in the pharma logistics space to gain more insights into the three biggest challenges that the logistics sector will be faced with and the preparations underway to tackle them. Because after all, aren’t we only as strong as our weakest link?

Ultra-low transport and storage temperatures

Generally, vaccines are stored and transported between the temperatures of 2°C to 8°C range. However, with over 250 vaccines are being developed and tested across the world, the temperature requirements for at least some of them are likely to be considerably lower. And, as the development of most of these vaccines has been fast-tracked looking at their urgent need to control and end the pandemic, experts also feel that more rigorous procedures will be imposed to maintain and protect their efficacy during transportation and storage. This may necessitate temperature-controlled transport and warehouses at ultra-low temperatures (up to -80°C).

While India does have considerable expertise in vaccine production and distribution, the scale and scope of COVID-19 vaccines could pose a serious problem. So, how are the Indian players in this sphere optimising and ramping their capacities before the COVID-19 vaccines become available?

Vikash Khatri, CoFounder, Aviral Consulting informs, “Indian logistics players have already started preparations to handle the volume surge. Since this demand is not permanent, companies are looking for coordinated efforts to ramp up short term competencies.”

He adds, “For surface transportation and storage, we don’t foresee a major gap in the available infrastructure and the required infrastructure. A large quantum of infra will be used out of the existing setup, for which logistics companies are getting ready with necessary upgrades for the pharma industry.”

The flurry of measures on varied fronts by the different players corroborates Khatri’s views. To cite a few examples;

DHL opened its first temperature-controlled facility in India in July near the Hyderabad airport for pharma shipments. The company informed that the new facility offers “conditioning of packaging materials in different chambers for varying temperatures up to -20°C.” The facility offers online temperature monitoring and SMS alerts with all data available for download from a cloud-hosted service as well.

Similarly, Kool-ex, a pharma cold chain logistics service provider has partnered with IndoSpace, a developer and manager of industrial real estate and warehousing in India, to build GDP/GWP compliant, temperature-controlled, pharma distribution centres across the country. They plan to jointly design and set up three warehouses with 42,000 pallet positions in each warehouse, in the first phase by 2021 near Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru. Koolex also intends to set-up 10-11 warehouses by 2023. These also include cold room facilities which will offer -20° C, if required for COVID-19 vaccines.

Blue Dart, an express logistics provider and part of the Deutsche Post DHL Group (DPDHL) is also ramping up its infrastructure with its pre-existing specialised temperature-controlled logistics (TCL) to transport critical shipments such as vaccines, medical samples and more. The company informed through a statement that it can handle various temperature requirements be it frozen: (-80° C to -20° C), deep chilled (2° C to (8° C) or ambient (15° C to 25° C)

“With an agile response team overseeing the upscaling of our current capabilities, a strong fleet of dedicated Boeing 757 aircraft and robust infrastructure for our temperature-controlled logistics solutions, we are capable and prepared to meet any immediate large-scale demand,” informs Ketan Kulkarni, CMO & Head – Business Development, Blue Dart through a statement.

A few players also suggest that the cold chain facilities which are used to transport cell and gene therapies, as well as the capabilities in the food and agro-based industries, can also be redeployed with suitable upgrades to undertake and successfully execute this huge task. This could be a good idea but given how vital is the endeavour and the implications it will have on the wellbeing of populations across the country, putting strict protocols in place and ensuring that they are adhered to will be paramount.

Airfreight capabilities

The air cargo industry will obviously have a very pivotal role to play in the whole vaccine delivery chain given the nature of the cargo, need for speedy delivery with temperature compliance for safety and efficacy, handling capability of the stakeholders and operational specialisation etc. But, this would translate into mammoth capabilities.

Recently, IATA, an airline industry body had said that transporting the COVID-19 vaccines will be the “largest transport challenge ever” and the equivalent of 8,000 Boeing 747s will be needed to execute this mammoth task assuming that each person will require only one dose of the vaccine.

Giving more understanding about the scenario, Khatri points out, “COVID-19 vaccine will be required for each human being leading to the overall requirement of 7.8 billion units of doses, while the overall estimated market of vaccines was 3.5 billion doses, in 2018. Once we include booster doses for COVID-19 vaccines, this requirement will be double than this. Air cargo plays a key role in the supply chain of vaccines in normal times and it has a well-established global time- and temperature-sensitive network to cater to routine requirement. But such a high volume requires extraordinary capabilities.”

“Even if we consider that 25 per cent of volume can be connected by surface mode in and around manufacturing countries, the demand of air cargo capacity will be approximately 12000 large freighters for primary and booster dose of vaccines,” he adds.

Bharat Thakkar, Co-Founder & Joint MD, Zeus Air Services admits, “Air cargo will be the primary initial solution that governments and pharma companies will engage to deliver the vaccines. Therefore, yes, the demand for vaccine deliveries will overtake the demand for regular cargo by quite a margin.”

Giving some more clarity into the whole issue, Rajiv Hariramani, VP–Air Freight, Skyways Air Services informs that in the months since the onset of COVID-19, air cargo from India has touched about 65000 tonnes per month of which 70 per cent is pharma exports. This is only likely to increase once the vaccines become available.

However, both, Thakkar and Hariramani are upbeat about India’s air cargo sector’s abilities to handle exports of COVID-19 vaccine delivery because they believe that there is ample untapped capacity that could be galvanised to deal with a spurt in demand.

Thakkar updates, “Currently, AAI and private airport operators are building capacity and implementing solutions which should be ready by the time vaccines are approved. It is also pertinent to point out that a lot of passenger aircraft have been drafted into carrying cargo, which will increase carrying capacity and there