Explainer: How COVID-19 vaccines are transported from the factory to the arm

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While the news that various COVID-19 vaccines are successful in stopping the virus, the logistics behind ensuring enough people get the shot remain challenging.

More than 181 million shots have already been given around the world so far, with vaccine manufacturers vowing to steadily increase production through the rest of this year – although experts have already predicted that it could be years before some poorer nations receive the life-saving drug.

In mid-January, the Emirate of Dubai launched the COVID-19 Dubai Vaccine Logistics Alliance to ensure the delivery of more than two billion lifesaving jabs worldwide until the end of the year.

The alliance includes Emirates SkyCargo, Dubai Airport, International Humanitarian City, among others.

The entire supply and transport industry has started preparing for the greater rollout of COVID-19 vaccines as production picks up, including big pharma companies, ground and air cargo providers, freight firms, and healthcare providers.

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This is how the COVID-19 vaccine is transported from the factory to the patient:

Straight from the factory: COVID-19 vaccine air and ground transport

Once produced, COVID-19 vaccines are either distributed locally via ground transport or shipped abroad via air freight.

Global ground and air transport of COVID-19 vaccines has been covered by traditional logistics firms such as FedEx.

“Critical to [COVID-19 vaccine transportation] is having the right packaging for the job,” said Jack Muhs, Regional President of FedEx Express Middle East, Indian Subcontinent and Africa, told Al Arabiya English.

Transportation of pandemic supplies has not only been limited to the vaccine, Muhs explained, noting that FedEx alone has shipped nearly 65 kilotons of personal protective equipment, over two billion masks, and more than 9,600 COVID-19 humanitarian aid shipments across the world.

For vaccine shipments that are sent outside of the production country, there are special measures taken at the departure airport to ensure their safe transportation.

“All major global pharmaceutical companies work with leading freight forwarding companies as they take care of the entire multi-modal transport arrangement of vaccines from door to door,” explained Julian Sutch, Manager of Global Pharma Sales at Emirates. “We take charge from when the cargo is delivered at the airport.”

After stringent and customized acceptance checks, the vaccines are stored in the dedicated temperature-controlled zone in the terminal after which they are taken to the ramp for loading on the aircraft.

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Temperature-sensitive pharmaceutical products, including COVID-19 vaccines, are one of the last items to be loaded on the aircraft prior to departure, according to Emirates.

The biggest challenge for COVID-19 vaccine logistics has been the end-to-end transportation process and the delivery of the lifesaving jab worldwide, especially in developing countries and hard-to-reach areas.

“It’s a challenging task moving vaccines from the production site to customers around the world,” said Dr Averyan Vasylyev, Medical Director for the Gulf region at GSK, to Al Arabiya English.

Technology and the rapid COVID-19 vaccine deployment

Some COVID-19 vaccines require more closely monitored transport. For instance, the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine needs to be stored frozen at around negative 70 degrees Celsius to remain effective.

“Our distribution is built on a flexible just-in-time system which ships the frozen vials to the point of vaccination within a day or two in the US, and within three days globally,” said Lamia Hotait, ‎Director of Emerging Markets Communications for Africa and the Middle East at Pfizer.

Once the vaccines are stored in cooling containers and shipped from the production site, the latest tracking technology monitors the temperature throughout the journey.

“The GPS-enabled thermal sensors in every thermal shipper with a control tower that will track the location and temperature of each vaccine shipment across their pre-set routes, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” added Hotait.

Key issues: Low temperature requirement, surging costs

Vaccine manufacturers identified the maintenance of vaccine quality and efficacy in the transportation process as a key concern. This can only be achieved by ensuring a cold supply chain from the factory to the patients.

“The Gulf region poses special challenges as an area known for its very high temperatures, so our packaging, logistics, warehousing and transportation arrangements are built around the need to ensure quality at any temperature across the supply chain,” added Vasylyev.

Another point of concern has been the surge in transport cost due to the high demand for the lifesaving jab.

“Due to the reduction in air travel, manufacturers are seeing a rise in air freight costs that could have an impact on the final cost of medicines,” added Vasylyev.

Nurse Emily Enos loads the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine into a syringe ahead of the distribution of vaccines to seniors above the age of 65 who are experiencing homelessness at the Los Angeles Mission, in the Skid Row area of Downtown Los Angeles, California on February 10, 2021. (File photo: AFP)
Nurse Emily Enos loads the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine into a syringe ahead of the distribution of vaccines to seniors above the age of 65 who are experiencing homelessness at the Los Angeles Mission, in the Skid Row area of Downtown Los Angeles, California on February 10, 2021. (File photo: AFP)

The final stage: Vaccine arrival to healthcare centers

In the final stage of the transportation process, healthcare facilities, also known as Points of Use (POUs) in the industry, play an important role in preserving the temperature of the vaccines before they are used.

POUs can store vaccines with ultra-low-temperature freezers, extending shelf life for up to six months. The second option includes widely available refrigeration units that are commonly used in hospitals.

In addition to the first two options, the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine can also be transported in Pfizer thermal shippers, a slightly different method that uses dry ice to allow for 30 days of storage, explained Hotait.

“It takes a dedicated team of pick-up and delivery couriers and drivers, who have been on the front line throughout the pandemic,” added Muhs.

“The global effort for the distribution of the vaccine is a massive task and cannot be handled by any one player alone,” concluded Sutch.

Read more:

Lives on the line if world fails with COVID-19 vaccine logistics, warns COVAX chief

Coronavirus: Dubai forms logistics alliance to expedite COVID-19 vaccine distribution

Vaccine nationalism to increase COVID-19 deaths, prolong pandemic: Experts

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