Pharma logistics specialists pass Covid tests

posted on 17th March 2022
Pharma logistics specialists pass Covid tests

Air freight suppliers have risen to meet the demanding conditions of the global vaccine rollout, amid a highly challenging environment that has included capacity and staff shortages and volatility, changing regulations, closures and lockdowns, reports Roger Hailey. Changes along the way have included accelerated technology developments, more one-way leases, expanded use of shipment monitoring and route simulation, and a rethink of some shippers’ plans to shift volumes to ocean freight

More than 9.6 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines had been administered globally by January 2022, according to the World Health Organization, with air freight playing a vital role in the challenging temperature-controlled supply chain.
Airlines, airports, ground handlers and freight forwarders have overcome capacity and staff shortages, changing regulations, sudden airspace closures or hub lockdowns to maintain vaccine deliveries since late 2020. And a key part of the vaccine logistics operation has been the cool chain packaging and specialist container suppliers, whose temperature-controlled units helped limit temperature excursions – thanks in part to a number of changes that have included accelerated technology developments and manufacturing, more flexibility to manage and accommodate one-way leases, and heightened use of shipment monitoring.
But there is more work ahead – particularly in Africa, Western Pacific and the Eastern Mediterranean, where World Health Organisation (WHO) data shows vaccination levels far below those of Europe and the Americas.
One result of the pandemic is that cool chain containers and packaging saw new technologies emerge to handle the extreme temperature range for delivering vaccines, some of which need to be kept at -70°C. Those improvements included significantly extended container battery life, improved insulation, and reduced dry ice requirements for a longer run-time of packaging at required temperatures, or to make more space inside standard size air freight containers for additional vaccine volumes.
There has also been a flexible approach to equipment leasing, with more trade lanes included in one-way leases to maximise aircraft bellyhold cargo capacity on fewer long-haul passenger networks.

Shipment monitoring developments
Extensive shipment monitoring, both in the air and on the ground, has also been an important part of the supply chain response at a time when vaccines have been going to new destination hubs where cool rooms and other temperature-controlled infrastructure is limited, both at the airport and for last-mile delivery.
This technology leap will sustain further Covid vaccine deliveries in the year ahead – but also for new gene and cell treatments for cancer and other illnesses which require immediate intercontinental transport at ultra-low temperatures.
SkyCell’s Good Distribution Practice (GDP)-compliant hybrid pharma containers have helped limit temperature excursions during the operations, with excursions affecting just 0.1% of vaccine doses it transported by air, says the equipment specialist’s head of strategic partnerships, Chiara Venuti. SkyCell’s 1500DF container for deep frozen pharma was already in the pipeline pre-Covid but came into its own during the pandemic. It has an independent run time of 120 hours with a reduced 100kg of dry ice and maintains a steady temperature of -60°C to -80°C, enabling up to 1.75m vials to be transported in a single aircraft.

High demand for negative-temperature pharmaceuticals
“The 1500DF, with the deep-frozen capability, is a fantastic innovative container because the very low amount of dry ice needed makes it particularly friendly on passenger aircraft that have a low dry ice limitation,” says Venuti. “Negative-temperature pharmaceuticals were in high demand with the pandemic, and we believe that trend is there to stay. In 2021 we still met our target of less than 0.1% of temperature excursions.”
Envirotainer’s new Releye RLP battery-powered air freight pharma container came to market in 2021 with a 170-hour run time autonomy for its electric heating and compressor cooling system. Bernt Anderberg, chief technology and supply chain officer at Envirotainer, notes: “When the pandemic hit we had to accelerate some of the activities already in plan and to get them up to speed even more quickly.”
The Releye RLP can accommodate three pallets on the same floorspace as two one-pallet solutions, a 50% saving on air freight space and so a more efficient cost option for pharma shippers, the company highlights. The Releye RLP can also operate in extreme temperatures, between -32°C and +49°C.
The new battery design can last up to a week before requiring a recharge, a run time that compares with a couple of days for similar containers, says Anderberg, adding: “We worked on all the parts of the container, including the insulation to free more space, and better efficiency in the cooling system.”
Envirotainer, with a total fleet of just under 7,000 containers and more in production, has already transported one billion Covid vaccines around the world.
Va-Q-tec, which 20 years ago pioneered the use of insulation panels within thermal containers that can maintain temperature ranges between -70°C and +25°C for several days without the need for a battery or dry ice, has also played a major role. Chief executive and founder Dr Joachim Kuhn says: “We are very proud to say that some 40% to 50% of all international corona vaccine shipments are done with our solutions.”

One-way shipment growth
Va-Q-tec’s insulation technology remains broadly the same within its product range, although there has been greater use of one-way packaging rather than multiuse packaging, since the start of the pandemic, on trade lanes where air cargo capacity was tight due to reduced bellyhold flights. Kuhn notes: “We call it one way rather than single-use packaging because you can use it for a second time, for example for domestic distribution in some countries.”
Anderberg says Envirotainer extended the offer of one-way leases on additional trade lanes, which meant that the lessee could leave a container at the destination and resell it or reposition the equipment to where it was needed.
Venuti says SkyCell also saw an increase in one-way shipments at the beginning of the vaccine airlift when smaller consignments were shipped and cost considerations were not an issue. The transport of larger vaccine consignments needed fully laden containers that were more cost efficient and less susceptible to damage and delays at certain airports.
Kuhn says Va-Q-tec’s product portfolio was already “perfectly prepared” for Covid vaccine shipments in terms of temperature ranges, packaging sizes and performance, whereas some competitors had to create new pharma solutions. And he says Va-Q-tec was able to quickly ramp-up the production of its insulation packs because it has in-house manufacturing.
“We have a very safe supply of these valuable components for ourselves, which was not the case for many others,” Kuhn notes. “We also increased the capacity of our cold chain centres around the world and even added some new centres which will remain.”

Real-time monitoring rise
All three companies expect real-time monitoring of pharma shipments to increase, not just with their own sensors to measure temperatures inside and outside the container or packaging, but also by the pharma shippers who have the final responsibility in making sure that no products are subject to temperature excursions.
Anderberg says: “There have to be monitoring functions to ensure that the customer at any time can see where the containers are, what the temperature is, what is the state of battery charges and all the conditions inside.”
SkyCell has its Transport Planner, a data-driven route-planning and shipment risk-management tool described by Venuti as a “game-changer” for its customers during the pandemic. “All of a sudden the supply chain becomes riskier because the airports were congested and there were less personnel on the ground; and in China there was double fumigation before the pallet entered the cargo system, so a lot of delays,” Venuti explains.

Extra digitalisation
The extra digitalisation of the vaccine supply chain allowed pharma shippers to have real data to make a proper risk assessment for different trade lanes.
Venuti adds: “The billions of data points recorded are feeding into this simulation tool that is really key when shipping at this moment, and we know it is the big topic now.”
Kuhn agrees: “We can offer all our products with datalogger and track and trace. They are real-time solutions or solutions which you read out at the destination. There is a shift towards real-time monitoring of the supply chain, which gives you good visibility; and that demand will definitely grow.”

Next airlift challenge
One of the next big challenges for the vaccine airlift is its expansion more towards countries and regions with airports lacking sophisticated cool rooms and harder to reach inland connections. So, how will the pharma containers and packaging cope?
SkyCell’s Chiara Venuti says: “That has always been a strong point for us when the local infrastructure and ground handler are not completely pharma compliant. That is when Skycell’s solid container can play a key role on two fronts.
“Firstly, a solid structure and sealed container protects the cargo from cross contamination if the airports are so small that the cool room has pharma and perishables in the same space. The independent run time technology means we can then make sure that the cargo is protected even if it is not entering the cool room.”
Envirotainer emphasises that it has a global support network in place for its containers and that the robust nature of its fleet and new Releye container, with its longer run time, will be of critical importance.
Va-Q-tec’s Kuhn says: “We are uniquely prepared because our portfolio can cope with these problems for five days or longer and all our packaging products have been tested under extreme conditions and worst-case scenarios. That is why we have seen a lot of demand from Third World countries and why many companies came to us and for the higher performance version of our portfolio, to cover those infrastructure problems.”

Switch from ocean freight
Ocean freight’s high levels of global port congestion, cancelled sailings and rate rises in the last 18 months have caused some pharma shippers switch to air freight for non-vaccine medication, although it is unclear if this is a permanent modal shift.
SkyCell’s Venuti says this has changed some shipment patterns, noting: “The logistics world has been impacted by this pandemic and the sea freight market has been affected by port congestion, port closures and delays. Before the pandemic you could expect a weekly shipment into Brazil and suddenly there was maybe one shipment per month. Instead of 10 pallets every week you have one shipment with 40 pallets.”
Pre-pandemic, SkyCell says many pharma customers were pushing to increase the proportion of their products moved via sea freight, but ocean freight rate increases and forecasting challenges due to delays have meant the plans some had to move 80% of their products by sea never materialised.
Some pharma products, those with a longer shelf life, will continue to travel by ocean freight, but the high-value products will stay with air freight as bellyhold capacity returns, believes Envirotainer’s Anderberg, who notes: “Of course customers like to ship big volumes which are not so critical by sea, to save money, and a certain portion went by air.
“We have a challenging situation in ocean freight these days, so we don’t see a drastic change or shift; but each customer will need to take a decision and find a solution that works for them.”

Shifting production
While air freight’s modal market share of pharma transport may not be about to change significantly, Va-Q-tec’s Kuhn says pharma companies may shift their production focus: “I think that, after Covid, the pharmaceutical industry will somehow relocate their production sites,” he notes. “They have realised that there should be more local production as well, in order not to have these massive international interdependencies in supply chains.
“The Europeans will relocate to make pharmaceutical products entirely in the European Union and have another factory entirely in the United States. In that way, there will be some changes in the pharmaceutical industry.”
Va-Q-tec has also joined IATA’s Strategic Partnerships Programme in a knowledge centre working with other stakeholders to shape the future of temperature-controlled airfreight transport for both pharma and other perishables. Envirotainer, meanwhile, has been a strategic partner with IATA for about 20 years and helped build its Time and Temperature Task Force.
Va-Q-tec intends to help address gaps in the industry’s collective knowledge about the performance of thermal packaging in air freight’s temperature chain “where people are not deep enough into thermal engineering to understand the real power of something and what is the real performance”.
Kuhn adds: “You can test the same container and get different performance levels, which leads you probably to the wrong choice. There are gaps in the industry which we want to fill.”