While Pfizer and Moderna become household names and pivotal characters in the stories we'll tell our children and grandchildren about The Great Pandemic, will we mention logisticians along the cold supply chain? The ones who figured out how to get it distributed, against all odds, to each member of the world population.
Cold supply chain management, or the 'cold chain' as it is usually referred to, is the final key to getting us out of the pandemic. But of course, there are a few extra hurdles to jump through before finally reaching the finish line.
Pharmaceuticals are already a cold supply chain challenge
Consistently regulated temperature is a crucial concern along the cold pharmaceutical supply chain. Most pharmaceuticals require temperature-controlled storage and distribution, as these biological materials are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature.
Pharmaceuticals sensitive to high temperatures can become less effective, and sometimes even toxic, when exposed to too much heat. Whereas, pharmaceuticals sensitive to low temperatures normally lose their medicinal properties if accidentally frozen. Consequently, transporting or storing pharmaceuticals outside of their prescribed temperature range can have a detrimental, if not life-threatening, effect on the health of the end recipients.
The importance of keeping temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals within their prescribed ranges throughout their journey does present a challenge for cold supply chain managers. However, temperature control is of the utmost importance.
New challenges come with the COIVD-19 vaccine distribution
The most monumental vaccination campaign in history is now underway. A total of seven vaccines are now available for public use, though in limited quantities. As of January 6, 2021, over 15 million doses in 35 countries have been administered, as reported by Bloomberg.
The successful delivery of billions more will be one of the greatest logistical challenges ever undertaken. But it's not just the quantity that presents a challenge…
Pharmaceuticals normally need to be kept at between 2 to 8 degrees Celsius (approx. 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit) during transport, and many reefer containers are up to this standard. However, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require more frigid conditions. Both use mRNA technology, but they also differ in storage temperature requirements. The Pfizer vaccine has to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit) and the Moderna vaccine should be kept at -20 degrees Celsius (approx. -4 degrees Fahrenheit).
This is the first time a vaccine using mRNA technology must be distributed on a global scale, therefore presenting a unique challenge for cold supply chain management. A global fleet of reefers need to be modified to fit the new criteria as a first step. Another big challenge includes the task of delivering vaccines to less developed regions which lack adequate refrigeration infrastructure.
Supply chain experts say that keeping mRNA vaccines sufficiently cold throughout distribution is a key factor in bringing an end to the pandemic. They are confident in the sophistication of the cold supply chain and its ability to meet these challenging demands. The framework for moving sensitive, temperature-controlled goods around the world already exists- it just needs some upgrades.
Cold supply chain players are already rising up to the challenge
One such leader in the cold supply chain, as featured by CNN Business, is Thermo King who has found a solution to the challenge of COVID-19 vaccine transportation through their experience with tuna fish.
Apparently, transport of fresh tuna requires similar frigid conditions to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Thermo King produces high performance temperature control units for vehicles and, in consultation with drug makers, they have reworked containers typically used to transport fresh tuna. The tweaks include additional insulation and adjusting the refrigeration system, enabling it to get even colder. Each of their 20-foot-long containers can now carry 300,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine by land or sea, with many making their way around the globe already.
"When it comes up to spring, we are talking about billions and billions of doses to be distributed," Francesco Incalza, president Thermo King Europe, Middle East and Africa, pointed out to CNN Business. While they have been ramping up production on these retrofitted units since October, it is clear that more cold supply chain innovators are needed to deliver the necessary quantity to the world’s vast population.
To tackle the challenge of delivering vaccines to less developed regions, Thermo King hopes to deploy smaller "cold cubes", since they'd be easier to carry over final distances. As the cold cubes can reach no more than -30 degrees Celsius ( -22 degrees Fahrenheit), they would contain the Moderna vaccine.
Rising demands require innovative solutions
In terms of value, cold supply chain logistics already accounted for more than 26% of the pharmaceutical industry in 2019. A share likely to increase, as there is growing demand for temperature-controlled products with the increased development of advanced biological therapies.
Cold supply chain technology is making great strides in the development and improvement of temperature sensors, data loggers, telematics and cloud computing solutions. These enable track and trace and real-time remote temperature monitoring which are critical safety aspects of pharmaceutical distribution.
Forwarders operating within the cold supply chain can find benefit and quality assurance using 7ConNetwork partners like Dockflow, which help forwarders track their refrigerated shipments- using real time data and blockchain technology. Expert forwarders and innovative LogTech solutions will be major factors contributing to the end of The Great Pandemic and meeting the rising demand of cold chain logistic solutions thereafter.