The Logistical Challenges of the COVID-19 Vaccine

With the news of successful COVID-19 vaccine trials, there appears to be a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel. Although the vaccine has not yet been granted emergency use approval by the FDA, healthcare and government agencies are gearing up to provide vaccinations to as many people as possible, ending the pandemic and the challenges that it’s created. 

That said, distributing the vaccines does present some logistical challenges. In fact, some have even suggested that developing and manufacturing an effective vaccine is the “easy” part, and the real challenge will be in getting the medicine to millions of people worldwide. From navigating the complexities of transportation systems and cargo capacity and restrictions, to ensuring adequate cold storage to the intricacies of administering the vaccine itself, ensuring that vaccination levels reach the necessary levels could prove to be one of the most difficult parts of the entire pandemic. 

A Logistical Breakdown of Vaccine Distribution

Let’s take a closer look at some of the issues that the COVID-19 vaccine will create when it comes to logistics. 

Cold Storage 

One of the most talked about logistical issues related to the COVID vaccine is the need for cold storage. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require extreme cold storage — as much as minus 70 degrees Celcius — to prevent spoilage. That said, not all of the most promising vaccine candidates have the same cold storage requirements. This means that the transport and storage providers working with the pharmaceutical companies will need to provide a variety of options to prevent spoilage. 

Under normal circumstances, inadequate temperature control during transport accounts for anywhere from 5-20 percent of vaccine spoilage. However, the requirements for the COVID vaccine are even more stringent than those for other products. Logistics planners must identify those transport providers that can ensure the proper temperature at every stage of the shipment, and ensure that it’s correctly packaged with the correct controls, including a temperature indicator. This includes transportation vehicles, as well as temperature-controlled warehouses and distribution centers. 

Transportation Availability 

Getting the COVID-19 vaccine safely distributed requires even more than cold storage — there are some significant transportation challenges as well. 

For starters, there is a significant shortage of air cargo capacity. Both raw materials and finished products are normally shipped in the cargo holds of passenger flights, but with a significant percentage of planes still grounded thanks to lowered demand, there is significantly reduced capacity. 

Further complicating the transportation equation is the fact that not all airports are equipped to handle the influx of cargo, especially when it needs cold storage. Given that the level of distribution required for the COVID vaccine is greater than any other in history, there is an unprecedented level of construction taking place near major airports to accommodate the shipments. However, that’s only the first leg of the shipment. Once on the ground, the vaccine needs to be distributed to pharmacies, hospitals, and other providers. 

The problem, though, is the excess demand on the ground transportation system. When combined with normal demand for refrigerated trucks to ship produce and other cold items, and the holiday season, there’s concern that there simply won’t be enough trucks and vans available to safely transport the vaccine. Orders for new trucks have reached unprecedented levels, but there is a backlog due to the increased demand. That said, manufacturers have already reserved space and trucks, so that when the vaccine is approved, it can be rolled out immediately.

Tracking and Security 

Finally, logistics managers are faced with the issues of tracking vaccine shipments, ensuring their security and that they are monitored until they reach the point of care. With the vaccines expected to be scarce in the early days of availability, it’s crucial that shipments are closely monitored to prevent theft, tampering, and spoilage. Given that shipment of 100 million doses can be whittled down to a few hundred or less by the time they reach the point of care, there’s a significant amount of tracking and monitoring that needs to take place. Logistics providers are already working on robust solutions to ensure that the shots are available to everyone who wants one, and that delays in reaching critical levels to ensure herd immunity — and a return to normal life — are limited and easily overcome. 

Desirae Odjick:
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