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Building resilient emergency medical supply chains

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities in medical supply chains. Here's how we can tackle these logistics challenges and prepare for the next public health emergency.

Delivering Pandemic Resilience

White paper identifies critical challenges in COVID-19 logistics

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The next crisis is already looming

Did you know that there are more than 250 potential COVID-19 vaccines in various stages of development around the world right now? The level of activity and speed is unprecedented, leading some developers and government officials to state publicly that a vaccine could be ready for distribution as early as the end of 2020. No vaccine in history has been developed that fast.

This means the race is on to ensure that the vaccine can be safely and efficiently transported, stored and distributed around the world. Manufacturers are preparing capacity to produce billions of doses, and the logistics demand will be enormous. How will the demand be met?

What lessons has COVID-19 taught about securing supply chains for future health emergencies?

Safe and sophisticated vaccine supply chains

Beyond having limited time to prepare to ship potentially billions of vaccines, the diversity and novelty of the vaccines will likely result in a wide range of logistics requirements. This will make it more difficult to set up suitable supply chains and offer end-to-end logistics solutions.

For example, today's conventional cold supply chains transport highly sensitive medical supplies at temperatures between two and eight degrees Celsius. Some COVID-19 vaccines currently under development may need to be kept at temperatures as low as -80 degrees Celsius! That's why logistics providers and governments will need to prepare storage and transportation conditions for multiple scenarios – to map out the logistics requirements and identify potential bottlenecks along the key links in the supply chain.

The sheer volume of vaccines alone presents a challenge. Shipping upwards of 10 billion doses may require up to 200,000 pallet shipments and 15 million temperature-controlled box deliveries. The vaccines will most likely be shipped by air freight, demanding an estimated 15,000 flights across the various supply chain setups.









Technology has a vital role to play in ensuring the delivery of vaccines runs smoothly. State-of-the-art supply chains provide real-time visibility, which can help predict supply and demand, provide up-to-the-minute inventory, and route shipments accordingly.

Geography represents another major factor affecting how quickly and efficiently vaccines can be distributed. While production will mainly occur in countries with advanced logistics systems, downstream distribution cannot be limited to these regions. It may require extraordinary measures to reach places with warmer climates and less-developed logistics infrastructure – places where billions of people live. 

All in all, the task will require organization, resources, and sophisticated logistics networks. Governments, NGOs, and logistics providers need to work together now to increase cold-chain logistics infrastructure capacities and set up the necessary structures to ensure we can reach the global population. The key will be strong public-private and government-to-government partnerships.

White Paper: Delivering Pandemic Resilience

How can we secure stable supply chains for vaccines and other essential medical supplies during this and future public health emergencies?

Strong and suitable partnerships

One of the lessons we've learned throughout the COVID-19 crisis is that a partnership network with both public-private and government-to-government partnerships will be essential going forward. This network can greatly relieve pain points by helping prevent disruptions along the supply chain and successfully meeting unprecedented challenges. 

Partnerships will also make it easier for governments to set up emergency response plans and central response units, which we at DHL believe must be in place to ensure supply chains are effective in future crises. While every health crisis is different and it is impossible to plan for everything, a well-thought-out strategy identifies plannable components as well as those that must be tackled in real time. Central response units facilitate fast, clear, and transparent decision-making during a crisis. 

At the end of the day, a virus doesn't bother to stop at the border and pandemics are by definition international. A partnership network means that countries don't have to tackle crises alone.

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Delivering pandemic resilience

As a global logistics player that specializes in getting mission-critical supplies to the places they are needed most, DHL is committed to doing our part. Drawing on decades of global logistics and supply chain experience – and in collaboration with McKinsey & Company - we have published a study that offers an in-depth look at what the logistics challenge for medical supplies, particularly vaccines, might look like in the coming months. The white paper offers a five-pillar strategy to help prepare for and respond to the next public health emergency. Our goal is to support governments as well as globally pharmaceutical and medical equipment companies by synthesizing lessons learned from recent months, detailing the upcoming distribution challenges, and providing a framework for tackling future crises beyond the current pandemic. 

Podcast: Living Logistics - Squaring up for the vaccine challenge

The availability of vaccines against COVID-19 to end the pandemic depends on effective planning and partnerships.

Published: October 2020

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