Vaccine logistics: the complexity of delivering doses
While Covid-19 vaccines are obviously not the first ones to be distributed on this scale, this campaign was novel in many ways.
First, obviously, is the urgency of the situation. As the number of cases and hospitalizations climbed from week to week, and as lockdowns weakened society and the economy, a race against the clock was set in motion. Suitable logistic schemes had to be identified in just a few months. These were made all the more complex because, as noted previously, messenger RNA vaccines have stringent temperature requirements.
As a rule, logistics providers are accustomed to handling temperature-controlled deliveries between 2°C and 8°C. But the molecules contained in the doses produced by Pfizer are fragile, and must be stored at a temperature of -70°C (the Moderna doses must be transported at -20°C).
Special packaging had to be designed and large quantities of dry ice were produced.
The health authorities set strict recommendations, requiring that the vaccines had to be injected within five days of their release from the warehouse, which had to be followed. Quick compliance was essential.
Then, because of the gap between supply and demand, logistics specialists had to work on a just-in-time basis, which is more complex to manage, and deal with the general slowdown in transport.
The pandemic also had a major impact on air, sea and land transportation. Under normal circumstances, passenger aircraft carry nearly half of the world's air cargo traffic.That traffic slowed considerably at the beginning of the pandemic, and then remained diminished, though to a lesser extent. Meanwhile, maritime transport was tricky to say the least because of the specific demands of messenger RNA vaccines: a specialized container can be kept at -30°C, which is sufficient for Moderna doses, but not for Pfizer's. Plus the five-day turnaround time had to be taken into account... Finally, road transport, which is essential to deliver the products to the population, also had to account for the time, temperature and security constraints. The shipments were worth several million euros, resulting in convoys "worthy of a James Bond movie".
The health, social and political stakes were enormous. Citizens wanted to get their vaccines as quickly as possible, while the entire logistics organization had to be redesigned. Rising to the challenge required a blend of inventiveness and concrete innovations.