From ‘Freezer Farms’ to Jets, Logistics Operators Prepare for a Covid-19 Vaccine

Date: Monday, August 31, 2020
Source: The Wall Street Journal

Shipping drugs safely from manufacturing plants to medical teams will be a high-wire act with risks at every stage

Logistics providers are building giant cold-storage facilities, or “freezer farms,” and lining up equipment and transportation capacity as they gear up for the rapid delivery of millions of doses of potential coronavirus vaccines around the world.

“The challenge for us will be to be on our ready at any moment to ship from one place to another,” said Wes Wheeler, president of the health-care division at United Parcel Service Inc., which is setting up the freezer farms, each consisting of hundreds of portable freezer units.

Drugmakers have been racing to build supply chains for their coronavirus vaccine candidates, finding manufacturing sites and ordering specialized production equipment. As some drugs advance to final-stage clinical trials, logistics providers are making preparations to deliver them securely.

The distribution operation—taking drugs from far-flung manufacturing sites to medical teams via warehouses, cargo terminals, airports and final storage points, all in a matter of days—promises to be a logistics high-wire act with risks at every stage. Breakdowns in refrigeration equipment, transportation delays, broken packaging or other mishaps could leave many thousands of doses useless.

Shipping companies say they are preparing as much as they can while waiting for information from vaccine makers and the U.S. government about details such as how many vials they will need to handle, the dimensions of the vaccines’ packaging and the timing of the distribution. 

“What we’ve been doing in the planning process is just telling them, ‘As soon as you know, we need to know,’” said Richard Smith, FedEx Corp.’s regional president of the Americas and executive vice president of global support.

The federal government has tapped drug wholesaler McKesson Corp. to manage distribution of coronavirus vaccines to hospitals, clinics and other sites in the U.S. that would administer the shots.

Drugmakers with vaccines in final-stage clinical trials expect their products to require strict temperature controls. Moderna Inc. said it expects its vaccine to require minus 20 degrees Celsius storage. Pfizer Inc. said the vaccine it is developing with German partner BioNTech SE will probably have to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, plus or minus 10 degrees. AstraZeneca PLC said it expects the vaccine it is developing with University of Oxford researchers to require refrigeration, but declined to give details.

Logistics operators have been expanding their refrigeration and freezing capabilities in recent years, particularly as the health-care industry has grown and pharmaceutical transport has become a bigger business.

UPS is lining up rows of freezer units, packed together in what the company calls freezer farms, for vaccines requiring minus 80 degrees Celsius in Louisville, Ky., and Venlo in the Netherlands, near the delivery giant’s global air hubs, Mr. Wheeler said. UPS said it was expecting certain vaccines to require minus 80 degrees, but the freezer units, which can each hold up to 48,000 vials of vaccines, can be dialed down to minus 85 degrees and up to minus 20 degrees if temperature requirements for vaccines change, he said.

Each site can be used as a pit stop during distribution and to store vaccines that are awaiting emergency-use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, he said. Some pharmaceutical companies plan to stockpile doses before drugs are authorized so that distribution can start as soon as they have the green light.

After taking delivery of frozen vaccine vials packaged in large trays, UPS expects to thaw them and then rearrange them in separate trays so that multiple smaller shipments can be sent on to their destinations, Mr. Wheeler said. The freezer farms need to be designed so that UPS can quickly carry out this process without compromising the viability of vaccines, he said.

Lufthansa Cargo, the freight arm of Deutsche Lufthansa AG, sped up construction of two pharmaceutical storage facilities, at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and Munich Airport, in part to be ready for a vaccine, said Harald Gloy, chief operations officer of the German airline’s freight operation.

The airline has been evaluating costs because of the pandemic-driven decline in travel, but opted “not to stop or prolong, but to accelerate” this project, Mr. Gloy said. “It was no question for us,” he said.

A working group of European airlines, Air France KLM Martinair Cargo, said Thursday it had formed a task force to work with pharmaceutical suppliers on requirements for shipping Covid-19 vaccines.

Once vaccines are ready to move, the doses will head into airfreight networks that have been roiled during the pandemic by the grounding of thousands of passenger flights, which has removed large amounts of capacity usually available in cargo holds. And if distribution begins during the peak holiday shipping season in November or December, companies will be shipping the drugs when cargo space is at a premium.

“That’s when we would see some difficulty there, just because of the huge amount of volume that hits our network and hits our competitors’ networks around peak season,” Mr. Smith said.

Because of potential capacity constraints, DHL Global Forwarding is evaluating plans to transport vaccines through a combination of air and expedited ocean shipping, which the company has used to deliver personal protective equipment, said David Goldberg, U.S. chief executive of the unit of Deutsche Post AG .

“There’s going to be a real need to engage the collective capacity that exists out there,” said Sandor Boyson, a research professor at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.

Brian Bourke, chief growth officer at Itasca, Ill.-based freight forwarder Seko Logistics, said distribution of a much-anticipated vaccine “would be the equivalent of every iPhone, Galaxy and PlayStation launch all at the same time.”

He said logistics operators likely will have to adjust strategies after the initial launch of distribution, since vaccines would need to be continually delivered over time and new challenges may emerge.

“This is a marathon; it’s not a sprint,” Mr. Bourke said.

 

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