The reality of British vaccine logistics and familiar problems

covid-19 vaccine

Despite the enormous hyperbole, the reality of the distribution of vaccines is turning out to be a fairly prosaic logistics exercise with issues familiar to any logistician.

Britain is the first to approve a vaccine for use against COVID-19 and its operations give an insight into the sort of logistics solutions that other nations will use to deploy the prophylactic.

The vaccine that has been approved is the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine. This particular design has a number of advantages, not least the ability to produce the vaccine rapidly due to the speed of replication of RNA combined with the small size of the dose required. However, the vaccine is stored at low temperatures in post-production inventory.

The transport mode used to move the vaccine consignments from the production site at Puurs in Belgium is a fairly straightforward road freight solution, using a local logistics service provider company specialising in pharmaceuticals and temperature-controlled freight. The vehicles used seem to be conventional temperature controlled rigid-body trucks.

At the tactical level, the logistics system being employed is also fairly conventional. The British health system, which at times over the past nine months has not been seen to be exceptionally agile in managing logistics problems, seems to have chosen to adopt a depot system for the receipt of the vehicle loads. This approach appears to be focussed on breaking up the vehicle loads into individual pallet-shippers for despatch to larger hospital sites where the pallet-shippers are stored in temperature-controlled facilities.

Already a problem is emerging, namely the size of each consignment. As mentioned above, the Pfizer mRNA vaccine is characterised a low dose volume. This means that each pallet carries a huge number of individual doses. Low-temperature consignments such as this vaccine are straightforward to store and handle for many days if the pallet-shipper and box are not opened. However, it is being found that deploying the vaccine in large enough quantities to justify the opening of boxes is shaping the nature of the vaccination strategy. Ideally, locations such as care homes, ought to be a high priority target for early vaccination operations, however, the number of potential patients in each home is insufficient to justify opening a box of vaccines. It appears much easier to deploy it in a large hospital where there are thousands of potential recipients. So already there is a conflict between the medical imperatives and the realities of the logistics.

As ever the problem of the last-mile is shaping much of the operations and it appears that a key part of the solution may be better designed packaging.

Source: Transport Intelligence, December 3, 2020.

Author: Thomas Cullen