The Covid-19 pandemic revealed the importance of an efficient and effective supply chain. Distributing masks and hand sanitizer, supplying stores and health centers and organizing vaccination campaigns all required an intense mobilization of public authorities and healthcare professionals to set up emergency logistics adapted to the new constraints.
The Covid-19 vaccination campaign, which began on December 27, 2020, was a logistically unprecedented challenge, that accelerated sharply in the first half of 2021 and when vaccines started being offered to the general population.
The urgent need to speed up the delivery of vaccines and the specific limitations of messenger RNA vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna), which must be stored at controlled temperatures and require specialized transportation solutions, called for the innovative capacities of logistics specialists. They used blockchain (a system for securely storing and transmitting data) to develop new transportation solutions that are ushering in a new era for the transport of healthcare products.
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.
Innovation + blockchain = optimal procurement solution
The need to consult logistics experts quickly became apparent, particularly in terms of cold control and product traceability.
These specialists, in consultation with health authorities, looked at the best way to meet the short turnaround time requirements and make the processes smoother.
To pull it off, some logisticians turned to blockchain, a technology for storing and sending information that operates without a central body and therefore ensures high levels of security and transparency.
Such was the case for GEODIS, which handled logistics between its warehouses in Val de Reuil and 45 distribution centers throughout France.
During transport, temperatures were recorded from start to finish, and the data was manually transmitted to the pharmacists who were responsible for certifying and authorizing the final delivery of the vaccines.
The process took up to one business day, with a positive response rate of nearly 99%.
But thanks to a blockchain solution provided by IBM, a test was conducted to automate data retrieval. Unless a sensitive situation was detected (in which case the pharmacist's intervention was required), this solution enabled automated approvals by providing certified, reliable and unaltered data.
Thus, the GEODIS teams were able to save 12 hours and speed up the distribution of vaccines. This innovation also limited the amount of vaccines hat had to be discarded because of poor logistics or poor tracking of doses. The solution, which was demonstrated to the government and health authorities in July 2021, is still being rolled out. However, it has proven itself and the value of blockchain in logistics... and of innovation in general.
Innovation as a key to future logistics challenges in the healthcare sector
The healthcare industry is undergoing a general transformation that extends beyond the most recent vaccines introduced to the market and the pandemic. Globalization, successive crises and the concentration of players have made supply chains increasingly complex. Demands continue to multiply, both at the local and regional levels.
For the players in the industry, the entire logistics outsourcing strategy needs to be redefined and streamlined in light of these upheavals. Transportation plans must be optimized and digitized tools need to be integrated.
In the competitive and fast-changing digital environment, new players have emerged. They are seeking to make the supply chain more responsive and efficient, even in the case of potential disruptions. As we have seen, blockchain can increase the degree of traceability.
So-called "control tower" solutions also help with this. These are technologies that give customers full visibility over inventory throughout the supply chain. Logistical information is easy to view and check, and users can respond quickly to the slightest problem in the system, such as a temperature breach.
GEODIS and IBM's innovative blockchain project has been distinguished with two in-house awards. As a result, a new permanent offer will be launched for the pharmaceutical industry, so that the advantages of this innovative solution can be shared more broadly.