Perhaps surprisingly, DHL’s latest white paper on countering the coronavirus is an uplifting – at times even inspiring – report, showing how quickly and effectively humanity can respond to a common global crisis. Despite a widespread lack of readiness for the virus’s emergence, the achievements since COVID-19 took hold, as discussed in “Revisiting Pandemic Resilience,” have been remarkable.
Achievements include vaccines that were developed five times faster than any others in history, the swift setting up of vaccine supply chains (including those with extreme cold chain requirements), and an increasing level of international and public-private collaboration.
Launched in May, this latest white paper is able to take advantage of the experience gained since the start of the pandemic and the first six months of the worldwide, large-scale vaccination programs to reflect the positive change in the battle against COVID-19 since its predecessor, “Delivering Pandemic Resilience,” was published in the pre-vaccine days of September 2020. That study outlined how the sudden surge in demand for medical items such as personal protective equipment (PPE), testing kits and ventilators had been met, and looked at the plans being made for the distribution of vaccines – more than 200 were in development at the time – when they became available.
Nine months later, it is clear how well that planning has paid off. According to Thomas Ellmann, Vice President, Life Sciences and Healthcare, DHL, and project leader and co-author of the white papers, both governments and the private sector deserve credit for the astonishingly rapid development, approval, manufacture and delivery of the vaccines.
“Whereas in the past, research and development, registration and manufacturing were all sequential, all this work has happened in parallel,” he says. “Scientists around the globe were handing over their work, and working in parallel. Also, governments have speeded up the approval of vaccines. And in terms of delivery, what we have seen is that everything worked very smoothly.”
By May 2021, 1 billion of the 10 billion doses that are required globally by the end of the year to achieve high levels of immunization had been delivered
The amount of global vaccine production concentrated in just eight countries in May 2021
The success rate of vaccine doses delivered safely and unscathed in the logistics process
The number of vaccine doses delivered by DHL to 142 countries by July 2021
As to that final logistical point, an impressive fact revealed by the white paper is that, globally, there has been virtually no vaccine wastage in transit – only 0.01%. This means that 99.99% of all vaccines transported in logistics operations arrived in perfect condition, despite the challenges of the extreme temperatures required for the cold chain. As an integral part of this global effort, by July DHL had already delivered 487 million vaccine doses to 142 countries.
“Logistics and supply chain management play a key role in pandemic management,” says Katja Busch, DHL’s Chief Commercial Officer. “Keeping supply chains running and ensuring delivery for essential health supplies has provided valuable lessons. We have rolled out new dedicated services for the vaccine distribution at unprecedented speed.”
The story of progress so far is, however, only the starting point for the white paper, which goes on to focus on the future and the efforts needed to achieve success in the global vaccination program.
Lots done, more to do
“The flip side” of the good news, says Ellmann, is that “only four countries [at the time of publication] have a vaccination rate of well above 50% – the U.K., the U.S., Israel and Chile – so there are 200 more countries on the planet where we need to have the same result. For herd immunity, we need to have 10 billion doses shipped, including to countries with less favored infrastructure development. And this will take us well into the spring of next year.
“When it comes to certain countries in Africa and Latin America, when we hand over to either local governments or the NGO, whoever is in charge, the domestic distribution in these countries can still certainly be a challenge, to get to all the people there. You have the logistics flow, which is basically our job, but then you would need to get the people flow right. You need to have in every country a certain strategy of how to roll out the vaccine – you need to inform the people, you need to make them register and come to a certain place at a certain time. In some parts of the world, vaccination is just starting.”
But ensuring that the first 10 billion doses reach arms across the globe will not be enough in itself to end the pandemic. As the report makes clear, this effort will have to be consolidated in 2022 and 2023 by an estimated further seven to nine billion shots each year for booster doses in order to resist new viral mutations or to reach those not yet inoculated.
Ongoing vaccine innovation
The white paper’s final section emphasizes that the gains made over the past fateful year – medical, logistical and political – must be built on. While innovations in viral vector and mRNA vaccine technology may ultimately have wider medical applications, there are also, says Ellmann, “companies who are working on different forms of vaccination instead of a syringe, working on an oral form or a nasal form like nasal spray. And there is one company that is working on a combined vaccine for COVID-19 and seasonal flu, which is pretty cool.”
With future public health crises in mind, “a lot of governments now believe, OK, we should never ever come to a situation where a commodity like gloves or face masks are rare and need to be flown into the country from China. So there are a lot of governments now going into the area of pandemic safety stock planning and preparation. And that’s obviously where DHL can play a role in terms of storage and distribution.”
Collaboration against COVID-19
Collective action is the report’s overriding theme. “All sectors, industries and nations must work together to successfully end the acute phase of this pandemic,” says Busch. “Forming strong partnerships and leveraging data analytics will be key.
“We also need to remain prepared for high patient and vaccine volumes, maintain logistics infrastructure and capacity, while planning for seasonal fluctuations by providing a stable and well-equipped platform for the years to come.”
Ellmann agrees that organizations must stay connected. “Within DHL but also outside DHL, a lot of institutions and collaborations are being established, like Covax [COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access]. Let’s keep the communication, and keep the planning, in order to be ready when the next wave hits us or the next pandemic comes.” — GP Newington
Published: July 2021
Images: DHL; iStock