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Vaccine Logistics: Cold chain, hot topic

As large-scale COVID-19 vaccination programs began, attention turned to the challenges of distribution and delivery. Katja Busch, Chief Commercial Officer at DHL, tells Delivered. how the company is supporting the roll-out of the largest vaccination campaign in history.

The coronavirus pandemic forced governments, organizations and individuals to act in ways that would have been inconceivable just a year ago. Amid the unprecedented global response to the crisis, no sector has responded more decisively than the life sciences industry. Research teams and pharmaceutical manufacturers developed, tested and industrialized new vaccines at 10 times the normal speed for such products.

Now the world faces a new challenge: distributing those vaccines quickly and safely to billions of people. In a white paper published last year, DHL calculated that transporting the estimated 10 billion doses required over the next two years will involve up to 200,000 pallets shipments and 15,000 flights.

Additionally, almost all vaccines require stringent temperature control throughout the supply chain. Storing and transporting these products is a highly specialized process. Some vaccines must be kept in ultra-cold freezers until needed, then transported in cooling boxes packed with dry ice or special freezing blocks. The white paper’s authors estimate that 15 million such boxes will be needed in the supply chain, together with the necessary infrastructure to load and replenish dry ice. 

Delivered. asked Katja Busch, DHL’s Chief Commercial Officer, how the company has been gearing up to play its role in the global vaccine campaign.

When did DHL begin to make preparations for a possible vaccine roll-out?

This is something we have been thinking about since the very start of the pandemic. The first question, of course, was whether and by when pharma companies would be able to develop a vaccine. By the beginning of summer 2020, early success in vaccine development seemed like a realistic possibility, so we started to look at what it would take to manage distribution, amid uncertainties about requirements such as temperature ranges.

One thing became clear very quickly: This is one of the biggest challenges the logistics industry has ever faced. Success depends on effective collaboration between the pharma industry, governments, NGOs and logistics providers globally. It is vital that we work together to find the best solutions. We have been having those conversations every day for many months and are now supporting numerous governments in their fight against the pandemic.

What steps has DHL taken to prepare its own networks for the vaccines?

Transporting vaccines is already everyday business for us. We operate one of the largest life sciences logistics networks in the world. And we have 9,000 certified experts working at hundreds of sites where we deal with these products on a daily basis. One big issue with the new vaccines is that the manufacturers don’t have the stability data that they would have for more established products. That means the conditions for transport and storage are very strict, and for the first vaccines it means using ultra-low temperatures. We are used to those requirements in special circumstances, such as clinical trials logistics, but not for large-scale distribution.

So the first action we needed to take was to increase our ultra-cold freezer capacity. In Europe, for example, we have secured more than 150 new specialized freezers for our network.  

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How do you manage onward distribution to end users?

For that part of the process, planning is key. You need dry ice to keep the product frozen in transit, so you need to ensure that enough of it is available at the right place and the right time. And there are other important considerations, such as regulatory limits on the quantity of dry ice that can be carried in an aircraft.

Then, when the vaccine arrives at the point of use, it needs to be thawed and prepared for administration within a narrow time window. That means you need to coordinate the logistics with the clinical facilities at the destination, and with the delivery of all the essential ancillaries, such as syringes and gloves. For every pallet of vaccine you ship, you need a truckload of ancillary products. And after the vaccine has been delivered, you will want to recover the specialized packaging for reuse. There are a lot of transportation flows that need to be coordinated very well.

Do you have the capabilities in place to manage those flows?

Fortunately, this is an area where we have already made significant investments to meet the needs of our life sciences customers. We have a supply chain control tower, for example, which allows us to track every shipment and see exactly where it is at any point in time. And for the past year and half we have been using new sensor technology that monitors the temperature and other critical characteristics of each load and transmits the data to our central IoT platform in Germany. So we can track every shipment, and confirm that it has remained at the required temperature. 

10 billion

Estimated number of COVID-19 vaccine doses required over the next two years


Number of new specialized freezers across DHL’s European network

Then there is the strength of our global air network. DHL Express and DHL Global Forwarding began distribution in mid-December, delivering the first batches of the COVID-19 vaccine to Israel. By early January, more than 50 DHL Express flights had carried vaccine shipments across Europe and beyond. In Europe, our strong presence allows us to move medical goods from country to country within up to 24 hours.

The developed world already has a lot of sophisticated healthcare logistics infrastructure, but how will vaccines be distributed in developing regions?

That is a really important question, and the answer is complex. For our white paper, we calculated that 25 countries with a total population of 2.5 billion people currently have the necessary infrastructure for distribution at ultra-low temperatures.

Over time, however, we expect the transport conditions to become less stringent. The manufacturers will obtain more stability data about their products, which may allow a relaxation of temperature limits. And there are other vaccines on the way that can be stored and transported at +2 C to +8 C. Many countries already have cold chains in place for those temperatures. They use them for existing vaccines, and for other products such as flowers or fresh fruit. We estimate that 60 countries with a combined population of five billion already have those facilities today. There will still be gaps, of course, and filling those gaps will require investment by governments, NGOs and the international community.

Is the world ready to take on that task?

I believe it is, and we are well on our way. This is a once in a lifetime challenge for our industry, and there is tremendous willingness among all players to work together and find collaborative, creative solutions. —  Jonathan Ward

To download the white paper, visit:

Published: March 2021

Images: DHL

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