How is the Cold-Chain Logistics Industry Preparing for a COVID-19 Vaccine?

Published by Nick Barrowclough on

covid-19 vaccine research
Cold chain providers and pharmaceutical logistics companies have experience in the proper handling, storage and transportation of vaccines and pharmaceuticals that must be kept between 2°C to 8°C (35°F – 46°F). However, the recent developments in the biopharma industry for genetic therapies which often involve live cells has led to a need for deep-freeze storage. These can be -80°C (-112°F) or as low as -180°C (-292°F), requiring liquid nitrogen.

Right now, there is a worldwide scramble for a COVID-19 vaccine. If, and it’s a big if, one becomes available, the global logistics network will be called upon to distribute billions of doses to the farthest reaches of the world.

COVID-19 vaccine trials
Source: Orbhealth.com

Logistics Facilities and Capacity

The pandemic has already highlighted the reliance on the global logistics as they were called upon to deliver PPE, ventilators, face masks and other essential supplies. People staying at home resorted to online shopping, adding further to the pressure on the global logistics industry.

Neel Jones Shah, global head of air carrier relationships at San Francisco-based freight forwarder Flexport, said during a webinar to logistics providers “Let’s all be honest here, vaccine supply chains are exponentially more complex than PPE supply chain,” he said, referring to personal protective equipment like surgical masks and gloves. “You can’t ruin PPE by leaving it on the tarmac for a couple of days. You will destroy vaccines.

Julian Sutch, head of Emirates SkyCargo’s pharmaceutical division has estimated that a single Boeing 777 cargo plane could carry 1 million doses of a vaccine. In the event that a double-dose regimen is required for the vaccine, it would require approximately 8,000 cargo planes. It’s not impossible, but it does pose a challenge. On saying that, as passenger air travel has taken a significant hit Emirates have already converted 70 of their passenger aircraft to hauling cargo.

There are also a limited number of airport facilities certified for the handling of pharmaceuticals. Miami airport is one of only two in the US with such certification. If 30 aircraft carrying vaccines suddenly arrived in one day it would overwhelm the capacity and pose a significant challenge.

Cold-Chain Facilities

It is becoming apparent that some of these vaccines will use new biopharma technologies and require deep freezing as well. A recent Bloomberg news story about UPS details their building of “freezer farms” at UPS air hubs with banks of freezers that can go to -80°C (-112°F). A total of 600 such freezers are being installed, and each can hold up to 48,000 vials of vaccine. Additional freezer capacity is also being planned at UPS hubs in South America, Germany and the United Kingdom.

UPS Freezer Farms at UPS hub in Netherlands

This signifies a significant investment from UPS, as typically a freezer of this type would be anywhere between $10,000 to $15,000 USD each. So an estimated $6 million USD has been spent on the one facility alone. There is no news as to which specific vaccine UPS are preparing for, but with an investment like this, it is a good sign of a potential COVID-19 vaccine becoming available soon. Typical vaccines that contained the deactivated virus only require refrigeration. In the scramble for COVID-19 vaccines companies such as Moderna and Pfizer are looking at mRNA vaccines, which do require freezing to keep the mRNA proteins viable prior to administration to the patient.

Wes Wheeler, the president of UPS Healthcare and Life Sciences says that “Moving parcels with dry ice and critical drug products is no a new thing for us. It’s our bread and butter. Storing at -80°C, blast freezing at -80°C and making sure that the time and transit is reduced to a minimal amount is pretty new to us“.

It’s not only UPS who is preparing for the huge logistics effort that will be needed when an effective vaccine is rolled out. In Indianapolis DHL Global Forwarding have opened a 22,000-sq.ft facility. This new facility is dedicated to healthcare logistics, with temperature-controlled storage rooms capable of 5°C – 25°C (41°F – 77°F), 2°C – 8°C (35°F – 46°F) and -20°C (-4°F). It is located inside a Free Trade Zone which makes it easy for international cross-shipping.


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