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Vaccine distribution: Putting our plans into action

How quickly the world can end this pandemic depends on effective vaccine distribution. We have worked hard for years to establish and expand our dedicated global LSH network. With the vaccine rollout underway, that preparation is now paying off.

Preparing for the vaccine rollout

Some vaccines have to be stored at extremely low temperatures.

Toward the end of 2020, the world watched as COVID-19 vaccine developers made history, creating a silver lining that promises to end the coronavirus pandemic. Now, humanity turns its attention to the challenge of producing enough doses to vaccinate the world’s population and safely delivering each precious jab into the arms of people everywhere. Effective vaccine distribution logistics will be key to success.

The past year has reminded us how essential resilient emergency medical supply chains can be. After the first wave of COVID-19 infections revealed several problems in the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), DHL  began focusing on the next logistics hurdle: rolling out the vaccine. Drawing on decades of global logistics and supply chain experience – and in collaboration with McKinsey & Company – we took an in-depth look at the lessons learned and detailed the challenges ahead. The result was our white paper, Delivering Pandemic Resilience, which aimed to help governments and the Life Sciences and Healthcare (LSH) industry understand the pain points in the medical supply chain and how to handle the massive global demand and stringent transportation requirements.

What lessons has Covid-19 taught on securing supply chains for future health emergencies?

Storage and distribution at -70 degrees Celsius present a challenge.

Stringent temperature requirements

At the time, we determined that inbound logistics, temperature requirements, and vaccine distribution would pose the most significant challenges.  The PPE supply shortages in early 2020 demonstrated the limitations of geographically concentrated production. With four of the six vaccine frontrunners based on new or even experimental platforms, we projected varying and, in some cases, very stringent temperature requirements starting as low as -80°C. We also estimated needing up to 200,000 pallet shipments, 15 million cooling boxes, and 15,000 flights across the various supply chain setups to provide global coverage of the anticipated 10 billion doses needed worldwide.

Over the past 20 years, we have worked hard to establish a worldwide team of LSH specialists backed by a global infrastructure network of LSH centers and life-sciences-graded facilities. Getting critical medical supplies to the right place at the right time is a mission we accomplish every day. That experience and expertise are now paying off, as the current COVID-19 crisis has reminded us all how vital it is to have a sophisticated supply chain in place to safely and reliably transport and store life-saving pharmaceuticals and medical supplies. 

The DHL Express network has already proven its strong resilience.

Vaccine distribution requires the right infrastructure

The early months of the pandemic and now the first few months of the vaccine rollout have shown that a robust infrastructure, including a pre-established network of warehouses and transportation capabilities, is needed to ensure a steady flow of critical supplies. End-to-end supply chain solutions with real-time stock level visibility ensures that supply matches demand.

A strong infrastructure also enables logistics companies to deal with the complexity of such this historic global vaccine distribution campaign. In summer 2020, some 250 COVID-19 vaccine candidates were in various stages of development. Now, several vaccines have been approved and are being distributed worldwide, with more on the way. Sourcing from multiple producers and distributing to destinations around the world demands end-do-end supply chain orchestration.

On top of that, healthcare providers need additional materials to administer the vaccines, such as syringes, needles, dressings, and more. This not only adds up to about three times the volume of the vaccines, but also adds to the complexity. It takes an established worldwide logistics network certified for transporting and warehousing life sciences products to ensure the necessary conditions and quality checks exist along the supply chain. After all, even a product as simple as hand sanitizer requires careful handling due to its alcohol content.

Our team of more than 9,000 LSH specialists works across our dedicated global network, including 150+ pharmacists, 20+ clinical trials depots, 100+ certified stations, 160+ GDP-qualified warehouses, 15+ GMP-certified sites, and 135+ medical express sites. State-of-the-art digital technology means we can keep pharmaceuticals, medical devices, clinical trials, research organizations, wholesalers, distributors, hospitals, and healthcare providers connected across the value chain, from clinical trials to point of care, and every step in between. With our aircraft fleet of over 260 dedicated planes, numerous partner airlines, and a hub and gateway network spanning more than 220 countries and territories, DHL is optimally equipped and prepared for the worldwide supply of COVID-19 vaccines.


GDP-qualified sites


Clinical trails depots


Certified stations




Gmp-certified sites


Medical express sites


Stringent temperature requirements (up to -80°C) are imposed for certain vaccines.

Vaccine distribution requires the right temperature

In preparation for shipping vaccines worldwide, we looked at the potential scenarios – from extreme temperature requirements (as low as -80°C) to the standard conditions prevalent in today’s pharmaceutical supply chains (+2-8°C). We wanted to understand the states of cooling along the supply chain, map out the logistics requirements, and identify potential bottlenecks. Our analysis suggested different challenges at each link in the supply chain.

Vaccines are high-value, extremely sensitive, and temperature-controlled items, which means that the stakes are high. Any misstep in the logistics chain could result in potential lives lost. Given the pandemic’s urgency, we correctly assumed that shipping the vaccine over longer distances would occur via air freight.

Transporting vaccines (or any temperature-controlled product for that matter) requires a highly coordinated approach, backed by trained people and certified infrastructure. This includes intimate knowledge of the minute details, such as packaging, storing, air and land routing, timing, carrier selection, specific handling requirements, and more.

We’re leveraging our suite of alternative transportation modes, such as courier, charters, and air combination, while tapping into our logistics specialists, life sciences infrastructure, and supplier networks to ensure that vaccine rollout logistics are not disrupted. Our network consists of 118 air freight LSH competence centers and some 140 life-sciences graded facilities. To meet extreme temperature requirements, we have invested in additional cold chain infrastructure, such as ultra-low-temperature freezer farms, and expanded our LSH capacity, including IATA CEIV Pharma recertification for our GxP (good practice) facilities.

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To safely store the vaccine at -70 degrees until the final domestic delivery in Japan, deep freezers were installed at a DHL storage facility.

 Vaccine distribution begins with DHL

In December 2020, DHL Express started the international rollout of COVID-19 vaccines. As one of only a few logistics companies with the cooling and transport capacity needed to transport vaccines that require extremely low temperatures, we are proud of this moment.

The first DHL Express aircraft touched down at the Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on December 9, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was there to receive it. DHL Global Forwarding, our international freight specialist arm, also dedicated a charter flight for additional supplies of vaccine doses, which arrived a day later.

After this first shipment, we began transporting vaccines to destinations across Europe, including Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Finland, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, Romania, and many other countries on almost every continent on the globe. Since the beginning of 2021, we have transported the urgently needed COVID-19 vaccines around the world on several hundred flights.

DHL Global Forwarding and DHL Express are currently serving multiple lanes out of Europe and other places of origin to transport COVID-19 vaccines, including Europe to Israel, Asia and South America. We are very proud to be supporting numerous pharmaceutical companies and institutes, including the Russian Direct Investment Fund and the Gamaleya National Center with distribution of Sputnik V vaccines.

As a global logistics partner of AstraZeneca, DHL Supply Chain and DHL Global Forwarding are handling the storage, picking, distribution, and transport of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine around the world – including many low and middle income countries through the COVAX initiative

In February, we were contracted to distribute the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine to Japan, delivering batches by air from our DHL Global Forwarding hub in Belgium to Japan throughout the year. The job also includes handling customs clearance and delivery to a storage facility in Japan and dispatching the vaccines to inoculation facilities across the country. To safely store the vaccine at -70°C until each jab reaches its final destination, we’ve installed deep freezers in our DHL storage facility. Warehouse operations will be ramped up and additional personnel brought in to meet the increased demand.

Vaccine distribution is only the start of pandemic resilience

After the 1918 Flu Pandemic, SARS, MERS, and now COVID-19, this pandemic is not the first and will certainly not be the last. The question is not if but when the next global health crisis will inevitably happen. To ensure a safe and secure medical supply now and in the future, the world’s governments need to establish partnerships and set up public health crisis management systems.

Our white paper, Delivering Pandemic Resilience, looked at the success factors to secure critical medical supplies during health emergencies and offers a five-pillar strategy to prepare for and respond to the next public health emergency. We encourage everyone in the Life Sciences and Healthcare community – from governments and NGOs to pharmaceutical companies, medical equipment manufacturers, and logistics companies – to act now. With informed planning, teamwork, and effective partnerships, we can learn from lessons both past and present and put the world in a better position than ever to manage the next international health crisis.

Published: March 2021

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?

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