Already on the front line and proven critical to the world’s economy, performance in the global supply chain will now be catapulted into the public gaze like never before.
As initial reports emerged in November of a break-through in the development of a COVID-19 vaccines, focus immediately turned to the supply chain and distribution capable of maintaining integrity and protecting the cargo from theft.

While the fast-tracked research and development for COVID-19 vaccines will undoubtedly deliver high return on investment, it is hard to imagine a comparable product for wider ‘value’ associated with the well-being of the global population, societal benefits and the impact on the global economy.

The distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has been labelled as the ‘biggest logistics project ever’. Without the inevitable emotion attached to its distribution, one could argue it is similar to any other valuable, sensitive cargo. Basics remain constant: identify the characteristics of the cargo to ensure its integrity is maintained; understand location of manufacture, delivery, routing and volumes, as well as value, to determine the appropriate strategies to adopt for safe and secure transport. However, there are of course considerable differences in distributing this particular cargo – whichever vaccine is considered.

Reefer temperature control
It has been widely discussed that certain vaccines will require reefer equipment capable of maintaining extreme low temperatures. While not unknown, so there are existing industry solutions, this in itself is no mean feat. Details are yet to be revealed, but the extreme temperature requirement may not be applicable once the retail pack is made; it is not uncommon for similar ‘retail packs’ to require more easily sustained 2°C to 5°C range for both transport and storage at the pharmacy. It should also be noted that there are several vaccines in development, each of which will stipulate different temperature conditions.

The availability of equipment might be an interesting challenge in the current circumstances. Air freight capacity has been severely reduced over the last eight months due to the sharp reduction in passenger flights. Sea freight will provide additional capacity; while not a traditional mode of choice for such pharmaceutical goods, the nature of this particular supply chain and the fact that there will inevitably be various production batches, suggests that sea freight could be a good fit.

There are numerous existing solutions including active (powered) containers. Recognising that for this specialist and costly equipment it may be more difficult to increase production, semi-active and passive solutions will provide additional capacity and may be more readily scaled up to meet peak demands.

Cargo integrity
TT Club’s recent reefer cool chain event identified critical challenges in maintaining integrity in the temperature-controlled supply chain, including accurate instructions and communications between stakeholders. Risk exists at every juncture including packaging, packing, transport and unpacking. Such sensitive cargo will be vulnerable to the smallest error or discrepancy – issues covered in TT’s StopLoss on temperature-controlled cargo.

Vaccines, specifically, are not just perishable but also subject to tight regulations in relation to transport. Of particular relevance are the controls necessary in relation to traceability and evidence of integrity throughout the journey.

“Risk exists at every juncture including packaging, packing, transport and unpacking”

Contamination risks will be amplified given the sensitive nature of the cargo. Carrying equipment will need to be clean, clear of debris, free of visible pests, and controlled to ensure that previous loads will not lead to taint or odour. Ship stowage planning may also require increased attention.

There has already been a reported spike in counterfeit medicines; a reasonable expectation would be that a COVID-19 vaccine would be a prime contender for counterfeiters. This risk may only partially be mitigated by the heightened regulatory environment for the transport of pharmaceutical products in the highly politicized circumstances faced in this instance.

Logistics challenges
The scale of the logistical challenge should not be underestimated. Many supply chains during the pandemic period have suffered stress and disruption, and there are regular reports of port congestion or lack of reefer point capacity. Supply and demand may be unclear, but significant volumes may be anticipated in the coming weeks.

While some countries are considering local manufacture and distribution, the logistics requirements are expected to stretch capacity and capability. The ultimate consignee in the context of the vaccine is, of course, you and me; delivery to a destination country or local region is not the end of the supply chain.

“The ultimate consignee in the context of the vaccine is, of course, you and me”

Distribution of course will be to every corner of the globe, necessitating careful planning and due diligence. While airfreight is widely expected to support the primary movement of the vaccine, the global distribution requirement will necessitate substantial involvement from surface intermodal actors. The likely multiple transfers will require most careful management of all aspects.

Cargo theft
National policy makers will determine approvals and demographic priorities. However, realistic or not, popular expectations will be that distribution and availability are immediate and on a global scale. There will inevitably be those who fall outside of a defined demographic, who will be willing to pay for expedient access. Consequently, it is likely that a black market will develop for these vaccines and quickly.

Earlier in this pandemic items such as facemasks and anti-bacterial hand gel became key targets for perpetrators of cargo crime. Unless distribution plans are perfectly executed within the expectations of any given population, which is unlikely, a COVID-19 vaccine risks being perceived as the single most valuable cargo in the supply chain. The stakes, however, could not be higher, far beyond theft or cybercrime; here cyber security will need to defeat industrial espionage and, reportedly, state actors.

“far beyond theft or cybercrime… cyber security will need to defeat industrial espionage and, reportedly, state actors”

Pharmaceutical regulations alone will be insufficient to support the necessary tracking, tracing and transparency through the end-to-end supply chain; intensified security strategies need to be developed and implemented. The menace of cyber security risks in this instance should put all on the highest alert. In general, freight crime rarely attracts media attention; it may be expected that the theft, loss or damage of COVID-19 vaccines would be front-page news.