Kuehne Nagel dollies

Logistics providers are getting ready for a Covid-19 vaccine surge

Both during and after vaccine distribution, the pharma cold chain will be vastly expanded


Numerous observers (among them the Pharmaceutical Commerce Cold Chain Sourcebook) have documented the growth of temperature-controlled delivery services over the past few years. This growth continued during 2020, but now it’s on steroids: forecasters are seeing (and worrying about) the difficulties of getting 5-10 billion doses of vaccine all over the world in the next couple years, provided that some of the dozens of vaccines under development are approved.

The latest capacity expansion is Kuehne+Nagel, the Swiss global freight forwarder. It has opened two new pharma and healthcare “hubs” in Brussels and Johannesburg, South Africa. The Brussels facility, 15,546 sq. m. (167,000 sq. ft.), is GxP-certified and connects with K+N’s pan-European PharmaChain Road Network. The Johannesburg facility (an expansion), also integrated with PharmaChain, features novel “cool dollies” that keep a shipment under temperature control on the airport tarmac (see photo). Both facilities have dedicated areas for all relevant temperature ranges: <-20°C, +2° to +8°C and +15° to +25°C. “In addition, these facilities have the ability to change or add dry ice as required for deep frozen shipment where temperatures need to be maintained below -60°C,” says the company, taking note of the fact that some Covid-19 vaccines might require deep-frozen storage.

Meanwhile, DHL Group, working with McKinsey & Co., issued a white paper in early September, “Delivering Pandemic Resilience,” it says, “to shape [the] conversation” on pandemic supply chain design, both for the current crisis and for future ones. The analysis sees a contrast between a “stringent” scenario of distribution, which would look much like current clinical-trial logistics practices, and a “conventional” one; the key distinction is whether storage and shipping conditions below the usual 2-8°C will be necessary. (As noted elsewhere, while the viral-vector vaccine candidates generally operate at 2-8°C, the mRNA ones could be much colder.) DHL hypothesizes that over the next two years, upwards of 200,000 pallet shipments, representing 15,000 flights, could be necessary for global coverage. (According to DHL, all wide-body aircraft have a limit of 816-1,088 kg of dry ice, due to its sublimation and risk to creating unbreathable air in cabins.) Large parts of South and Central America, Africa, and much of Russia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East lack the capacity for “stringent” delivery.

DHL, like UPS, Nippon Express and others, has expanded its life sciences logistics capacity in the past six months. DHL Global Forwarding has just announced the addition of a twice-weekly air-freight flight linking Incheon, South Korea, Chongqing, China, Amsterdam and Chicago. “While some passenger airlines have resumed operations, the situation in the air freight market remains volatile – especially as belly capacity is still tight,” says Thomas Mack, global head of air freight.

South Korea has seen its export of healthcare products rise year-on-year by 26.7% in the first half of 2020, with pharmaceutical goods in particular increasing by 52.5%. China has exported 28.5% more medical devices in the first five months of the year as compared to a year ago, says the company.

There will be an inevitable scramble to deliver vaccines as they become available; it’s an open question, though, whether the global community will support getting deep-frozen vaccines to the entire world in a timely manner. In either case, the logistics network for life sciences is taking a giant step forward.