• 15,000 flights and 15 million cooling boxes could be needed to transport billions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine around the world.
  • There are more than 250 potential vaccines in development.
  • We could see some vaccines ready by the end of the year - and we need to make sure medical supply chains are in place.

The past half year has proven without a doubt the critical importance of a well-functioning healthcare supply chain. It has also revealed many of the shortcomings and weak links in that chain. While the procurement, transport and distribution of such items as personal protective equipment (PPE) posed one of the greatest logistics challenges of our lifetime, this will pale in comparison to an even greater task ahead of us: vaccine logistics.

Luckily, all stakeholders in the supply chain, from suppliers, to governments and NGOs and onto logistics providers, have learned much since the pandemic began. Now is the time to put these lessons into practice and prepare for the huge challenge of getting life-saving vaccines to the people of this world. As the world’s largest logistics group, we are prepared to distribute the vaccines but it all depends when the vaccine will be ready, and how prepared governments are the world over to take all the necessary measures for the final delivery of the vaccine to their citizens.

covid medical supply chain
Keeping vaccines cool along the supply chain will be a major challenge
Image: DHL

It is evident that we must act quickly. Currently, there are more than 250 potential COVID-19 vaccines in various stages of development around the world, with progress being made at unprecedented speed. It is not unlikely that we could see some vaccines ready for distribution before the end of this year.

The cold-chain challenge

This rapid rollout is only possible if special approaches in vaccine development, testing and stabilization are used. While traditionally, sufficient time is devoted to testing and developing vaccine stability, with the tremendous urgency to deliver a successful coronavirus vaccine, this might not be the case for all of the potential candidates.

A potential lack of stability data, in turn, could mean more stringent temperature requirements for the vaccine supply chain, with some vaccines needing to be kept at temperatures as low as -80 degrees Celsius. This poses challenges for the existing medical supply chain that conventionally distributes vaccines at +2–8°C. While health authorities, producers and logistics providers would strongly prefer to begin large-scale transport and distribution under the less stringent conditions, one of the most promising vaccines that could be produced at high capacity is likely to require such extreme care, more akin to logistics used for medical trials – a system created to cater to a much lower number of units than billions of doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The actual transport of these vaccines will also pose a huge challenge. Due to their urgency, it is probable that at least for longer distances air freight will be needed. If we want to achieve global coverage over the next two years, that means some 200,000 pallet shipments and 15,000 flights. In the final distribution we could potentially require nearly 15 million cooling boxes, with the corresponding amounts of cooling bricks or dry ice.

Data must be available for everyone

Due to the sensitivity of the shipments, technology will play a vital role in ensuring the smooth execution along every step of the supply chain, for example to ensure that vaccines have remained efficacious throughout the supply chain. At the same time, and as the initial scramble for PPE earlier this year showed, we will need to increase the overall visibility on relevant data for everyone involved. This is not only essential to properly judge supply and demand, but also to identify potential bottlenecks that slow the transport and distribution of the vaccines.

Currently, no platform exists that covers all those visibility needs, but a number of examples exist from other areas. Ecommerce-led platforms, for example, are able to provide near real-time shipment visibility, smart routing and demand forecasting. In the forwarding industry there are data sharing platforms that are able to monitor and predict potential risks, such as volatile transportation, distressed suppliers and other disruptions. Adapting existing solutions to emergency response management could greatly ease some of the challenges experienced in the past months.

Reaching billions of people

Geography will be a defining factor in how quickly and efficiently vaccines can be distributed, and here temperature requirements are likely to be the main challenge. If vaccines need to be distributed under the more stringent scenario, especially regions with a particularly warm climate and those with limited cold-chain logistics infrastructure will pose a huge challenge – this is the case in large parts of Africa, South America and Asia. In other words, if the vaccine does need this extreme care, we are currently only able to (fairly) easily reach 2.5 billion of the world’s population.

Potentially, some of these challenges can be lessened if, in the end, the vaccines that go into mass production do not need such stringent care, but even then the logistical effort will be extraordinary.

We are all in this together

So what needs to be done in the short time we still have before the first vaccines arrive?

The world has learned a lot of lessons over the past few months of this health crisis. One of them is that sufficient planning and solid partnerships make a huge difference when it comes to meeting the surge in demand for medical supplies and ensuring their effective distribution. A network with both public-private and government-to-government partnerships will be essential going forward. Every one of us has an interest in ending this pandemic as quickly as possible.

Logistics companies such as Deutsche Post DHL Group and our peers in the industry are natural partners to ensure that the countries of the world will be able to source and distribute any vaccine as quickly as possible. We and they are working hard to set up the necessary infrastructure and have the teams in place to execute the moment a vaccine arrives. Global logistics players, working in tandem with governments, NGOs and health authorities, will be able to provide governments with access to a global shipping network at scale as well as local warehousing capacity and know-how with in-country logistics. But, as mentioned at the start, much will also depend on when the vaccines will be available and how well governments around the world have prepared for the distribution of the vaccine to their people.

As part of our contribution to this endeavor, but also to stress the critical urgency of this matter, Deutsche Post DHL Group also recently published a study in collaboration with McKinsey & Company that offers an in-depth look at what the logistics challenges for medical supplies, particularly vaccines, might look like in the coming months. The white paper offers a five-pillar strategy to help stakeholders prepare for and respond to the next public health emergency.

Included in the report are also a number of recommendations for governments to support them as they prepare not only for the requirements of a well-run vaccine supply chain, but also for future crisis. These measures could entail, for example, the creation of centralized special unit within the government that has the authority to quickly and effectively decide and respond to developments, that can act agilely to an ever –changing and often complex situation, and possess credibility both within the government and the public sector.

Prepared for future crisis

COVID-19 is not the world’s first pandemic, and it likely will not be the last. By working together in strong partnerships and with careful and informed planning, we can establish comprehensive public health crisis management backed by safe and sophisticated supply chains. This will help us tackle the current challenges we face, and make sure that we are well prepared to deal with any large-scale health crisis that comes our way.