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Supply chains will face multiple scenarios for shipping COVID vaccines

The instability of early-stage COVID-19 vaccines will push the limits of supply chain capabilities worldwide, but as more traditional medicines enter the market, distribution will become easier for many logistics companies and regions of the world, a key figure in DHL’s preparations for the blockbuster shipping event said.

At least 10 billion doses of coronavirus vaccine will likely be required to immunize 7.8 billion people worldwide, according to some estimates. More than 220 vaccine candidates are under development, including nine in Phase 3 trials that could be approved in the coming weeks and months.

Some drug companies are using new technologies to speed up development, but these vaccines contain a high-protein base and need to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius.

In the initial phases it’s quite plausible we’ll see many shipments that are direct to the point of inoculation,” Larry St. Onge, president of life sciences and health care for DHL Customer Solutions, said in a virtual presentation to the FreightWaves Cold Chain Summit on Friday. “Over time that will transition. We’ll see more consolidated shipments, more breakbulk opportunities where shipments are moved in larger quantities and then broken down through crossdock mechanisms.”

Larry St. Onge, president of DHL Customer Solutions life sciences and healthcare

Deutsche Post DHL is one of the largest international shipping and contract logistics companies in the world. Customer Solutions provides a single customer interface and develops customized logistics solutions for DHL’s largest global customers.

The most temperature-sensitive vaccines in the first wave will have very stringent shipping specifications, dictated by the need to remain frozen at every step from fill point to point of use. St. Onge said these shipments will be characterized by multidose vials that are densely packed without syringes and with additional content to ensure temperature integrity.

Airfreight logistics experts have said the lack of specific information from pharmaceutical manufacturers about their vaccines, dosing levels, types of vials and packaging, and the amount of dry ice required makes it difficult to plan the right aircraft, warehousing, cold storage equipment and personnel for the job. 

DHL and McKinsey say 15,000 flights and 15 million cooling boxes will be needed over two years, but there are so many unknowns at this point that those figures are simply guesstimates

Gradually more vaccines that only require refrigeration — in the 2- to 8-degree Celsius (35.6 to 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit) range — will enter the market. They are likely to come in single-dose vials and be individually packed with a syringe and additional space to improve convenience for the end user, St. Onge said.

DHL’s pharmaceutical logistics chief said about 25 to 30 countries, with a combined population of 2.5 billion, have the infrastructure and capability to ensure trouble-free delivery of deep-frozen vaccines. An additional 60 countries, with 5 billion people, will be able to handle the refrigerated vaccines.

Direct shipments from pharma factories will eventually shift to transshipment models where shipments are quickly rerouted at a crossdock for final-mile delivery. 

“And then as we reach a level of herd immunity through the use of vaccinations, and also exposure of those who have had the virus and overcome it, I think we’ll see a more traditional pharmaceutical distribution scenario where products will be moved into a country, warehoused and supplied on demand as necessary,” St. Onge said. 

A worldwide emergency delivery of a vaccine is the biggest challenge the airfreight and logistics sectors have ever faced, according to industry professionals.

“Nothing is insurmountable, but planning is paramount,” St. Onge said.

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