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5 COVID-19 Vaccine Shipment Challenges and Potential Opportunities

Distribution of Covid-19 vaccines has begun worldwide – in the EU, vaccines from pharmaceutical manufacturers Biontech/Pfizer and Moderna already have conditional marketing authorizations valid for one year but renewable, and the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine received emergency marketing authorization in the United Kingdom. The vaccines from the manufacturers Curevac and Johnson & Johnson were (as of early January 2021) in the study phase relevant for approval; the vaccine from Sanofi is not expected to receive approval until the end of 2021. Other vaccines (e.g. from Russia or China) are already on the market but have not yet been approved in the EU. 


Logistics pose significant challenges to the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, e.g., some vaccines must be transported and stored at extremely low temperatures. Let’s look at 5 of those challenges:


1. Ensuring EU-GDP Standards 


Every logistics company that transports vaccines to their destination in the EU must comply with the so-called EU-GDP standards. The abbreviation GDP stands for Good Distribution Practice, which are minimum requirements for the transport of pharmaceuticals. GDP includes the following:


  • forwarders must ensure that the medicines being distributed are authorized under EU law;
  • the preparations are stored at all times, including during transport, under the conditions provided for in each case;
  • there is no contamination by other products during transport;
  • there is a transfer to other means of transport or the respective warehouse that is appropriate for the medicinal product;
  • the correct products reach the correct recipient in a satisfactory period of time.


Tracking of individual products must also be ensured, for example, in order to easily locate faulty medicines and recall them if necessary. All logistics companies that transport vaccines must prove that they follow GDP. The EU has automatically extended GDP certificates and time-limited wholesale permits until the end of 2012 for pharmaceutical products because of the Corona exemption, but inspections are possible at any time, so you need to be in compliance. 


The major logistics companies in Germany are generally licensed to transport pharmaceuticals and other medical products. Since their capacities are limited, logistics companies that have little experience with the transport of vaccines and related supplies are now also playing a role in their distribution. The challenge for them is to achieve and consistently comply with the EU’s GDP standards. 


2. Maintaining the Cold Chain 


Not interrupting the cold chain plays a major role in ensuring the efficacy of medicines for many medical devices. Some Covid-19 vaccines must be transported, distributed and stored at extremely low temperatures. The Biontech vaccine is particularly temperature sensitive – it must be refrigerated at a temperature of -70 degrees Celsius until just before administration, while the Moderna vaccine must be refrigerated at temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius. 


Dry Ice and Other Difficulties


Therefore, to transport the Biontech vaccine, dry ice must be used in part for refrigeration. However, dry ice is considered a hazardous material in air cargo – so the planes that often handle the first part of the vaccine shipment cannot be fully utilized. There are also only a few manufacturers of transport boxes that can maintain such a low temperature for an extended period of time, which can lead to capacity bottlenecks in transport (especially since these box manufacturers also have limited production capacity). A lack of electricity in some areas where the vaccine is used poses further logistical problems for maintaining the cold chain.


Logistics are Not Yet in Place Everywhere


Distribution and vaccination centers also need to maintain ultra-low temperatures until vaccination, which can create space problems. This is because the ultra-low temperature freezers are about the size of a double refrigerator with a capacity of around 740 liters, or the equivalent of 200,000 vaccine doses – far too few for a major city like Hamburg. This is because the vaccines usually have to be administered twice within a month. Another problem is that in some places in Germany, the logistics in the vaccination centers are still incomplete; among other things, there is a lack of freezers. Federal Health Minister Jens Spahn does not see the federal government as responsible for cooling the vaccines on site, but rather the states.


Pallet transport of the vaccines is planned from the second quarter of 2021 – container shipping and truck transport will then also face the challenges mentioned.


3. Safeguarding Against Hacking & Theft


The vaccines are valuable. Protecting them from theft en route to their destination is therefore a top priority for logistics providers. Transport vehicles should therefore be equipped with GPS trackers and sensors and, if possible, two drivers should take over a transport so that the vehicles are guarded at all times. They should also not deviate from planned routes, approaching parking lots only when they are guarded. Logistics companies also need to protect their software from hacker attacks that, for example, want to delay the delivery of vaccines (keyword „corona deniers“). 


4. Fast Delivery Needed


In order to vaccinate a large part of the population quickly, large quantities of vaccine are needed. However, the EU has backed the wrong horse when it comes to purchasing vaccines, ordering 300 million doses of the Sanofi vaccine, for example, which is not expected to be licensed until the end of 2021, but only 460 million doses in total of the Biontech and Moderna vaccines, which may currently be used in the EU. The question is, where do we go from here? Germany has reordered 30 million doses of vaccine from Biontech, and German Health Minister Spahn has assured all those willing to be vaccinated that they will be able to do so by summer 2021, but so far it is far from clear whether these commitments can be met.


5. Low Capacity in Global Trade


There are also numerous logistical challenges when it comes to transporting vaccines. This is because the current situation, especially in the ocean freight market, shows decidedly limited transport capacities. For example, most of the cargo ships from the Far East to Europe are currently fully booked, carriers are charging high surcharges per container, and deliveries are arriving late due to the sometimes heavily congested ports. This also increases the cost of transport, not least because some of the vaccines require „special treatment,” i.e. extreme cooling. 




The list of challenges is long and the impact on global supply chains should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, we should be prepared for the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine to keep us busy with logistics for some time to come. After all, the reduction in freight capacity due to urgent medical shipments equally affects the transportation of other consumer goods. 

Forto’s experts and our innovative technology enable you to stay fully informed in real time, quickly identify changes in the freight business, react early and take action, thus securing the supply chain even in such challenging times as these.