As the world continues to reel from the Covid-19 global pandemic, widespread vaccination remains one of the best tools for ending the crisis. The good news is that well over 5 billion Covid-19 vaccine jabs have already been administered. Of course, billions of Covid-19 vaccine doses are still needed to vaccinate the rest of the global population and effectively curb the pandemic.
But delivering any vaccine is not an easy walk in the park. And pharmaceutical logistics market studies show how staggeringly tricky that is:
- More than 50 percent of vaccines supplied worldwide become spoiled or damaged by the time they get to their destination, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) report.
- According to the UPS Pain in the Chain Survey, almost a third (or 30 percent, to be precise) of the pharmaceutical shipments (which include vaccines) get damaged during transit.
- The pharmaceutical industry incurs an annual loss of a whopping $35 billion due to breaches in the cold chain (a refrigerated supply chain for vaccines & medicines), according to a widely quoted study by the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science.
Delivering Covid-19 vaccines is an even more difficult challenge given their specific storage and transportation requirements. Cases of Covid-19 vaccine spoilage and wastage are being reported all over the world.
France is one eye-opening example, reporting wastage of 20 percent of Moderna and 25 percent of AstraZeneca vaccine doses it had received by April this year. So, why is distributing Covid-19 vaccines such a big challenge? That’s what this post is all about.
Deep-Free Storage Requirements
One of the biggest challenges when distributing Covid-19 vaccines is their need for ultra-low temperatures during storage and shipping. Take Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, for instance. The mRNA-based Covid-19 vaccines cannot be stored for long in normal medical refrigerator temperatures of 2°C to 8°C without denaturing their ingredients.
Instead, these vaccines must be kept in ultra-cold storage units filled with dry ice so that they can maintain their optimal temperatures of around -70°C (-94°F). That’s 70 degrees centigrade below freezing point! Needless to say, not all clinics, pharmacies, and healthcare facilities, especially those located in remote areas, have the necessary storage facilities to maintain these ultra-freezing temperatures.
It adds to the complexity of the vaccine delivery system. For one, Covid-19 vaccines need the use of custom-built cold boxes that can accommodate between 1000 and 5000 vaccine vials each for several days at ultra-cold temperatures. There are reports that these specialized freezer units go for about $10,000 each.
According to earlier reports, the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine was only allowed to be stored in a regular medical refrigerator for just a day. This is a concern that many key stakeholders, including the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Dr. Nancy Messonnier, shared. She stated that the complexities associated with ultra-cold storage and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines would have a major effect on the agency’s ability to distribute the jab to where it is urgently needed effectively.
Thankfully, the FDA has since revised its stance on the ultra-freezing temperature requirements for several vaccines, including the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna variants. In May this year, the FDA announced that the Pfizer vaccine could be stored in a standard medical refrigerator at between 2°C and 8°C for up to 31 days (1 month).
Getting the Vaccines Where They Are Needed
It’s one thing to ensure vaccine temperature requirements, but how do you get millions of Covid-19 vaccine doses to where they are needed? That’s another pain point that vaccine makers and distributors have had to wrestle with.
Pharma companies like Pfizer had to partner with global logistics companies like UPS to create truck-based freezer units. They would also create ‘freezer farms’ that can accommodate around 48K vaccine vials each. These units are parked at strategic locations all over the US, allowing for fast and efficient vaccine distribution.
But how do you ensure that vaccine temperatures remain within the prescribed range in transit and “freezer farms”? Do trucks being used have the capacity to keep the vaccine under required temperatures in case of an equipment failure?
How can Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers, distributors, and health departments ensure that temperature fluctuations and equipment malfunctions have not compromised their shots? These are other hurdles that face Covid-19 vaccine rollouts.
One of the most effective ways to overcome these challenges is to utilize real-time temperature monitoring systems. They include data loggers equipped with cutting-edge sensors, wireless transmitters, and GPS tracking capability.
These devices that log and monitor vaccine temperature can also be interfaced with a web-based software system, allowing for around-the-clock vaccine monitoring and control.
The good thing is that digital data loggers have evolved immensely since the early 1990s and now represent the state of the art monitoring technology. Today, they are extensively connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) and controlled remotely using a cloud-based tracking system. According to Dickson, this kind of monitoring system can offer vaccine distributors a variety of advantages that include:
- Ability to access vaccine temperature data in real-time. As such, vaccine shippers can quickly and efficiently respond to issues like equipment breakdown and temperature excursions.
- The ability to collate, analyze, and summarize temperature data from many monitoring points across the vaccine supply chain
- Automated collection, storage, and organization of vaccine temperature data. Vaccine shippers and manufacturers can also keep an accurate record of equipment calibration, corrective actions taken during excursions, and freezer operating parameters.
- Smooth integration into most quality management systems (QMS’s). This feature can come in quite handy when meeting regulatory compliance.
- Capacity to scale quickly, which is extremely important because companies like Pfizer are supplying their Covid-19 vaccines to well over 165 countries
Distributing coronavirus vaccines has proven to be quite a challenge, but not one that experienced pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer can’t overcome. They’re distributing the jabs via a cold chain, a strategic temperature-controlled supply system. The extensive use of intelligent digital data loggers and IoT technology has enabled them to gain greater visibility into vaccine status throughout the cold chain.