The ultimate goal of any pharma company is patient well-being, which it cannot achieve without a tight, lean, and reliable pharma cold chain. When dealing with vaccines for epidemics like the Coronavirus, the pharma cold chain logistics must be planned to maintain a balance between the vaccine reaching safely and on time.
Now that the COVID-19 vaccine is here, the objective is to keep it safe and intact through the last mile of its journey and incorporate these best practices to gain control over general vaccine supply chains for human and animal health. Let’s look at how a vaccine travels in the pharma cold chain and how vaccine cold chain monitoring helps make this journey successful.
A vaccine's journey is more complicated than other pharma products because it is very susceptible to temperature changes, heat and light exposure, and breakage. The COVID-19 vaccine needs an exceptionally reliable cold chain — transport and storage in specific cold temperatures, ambiance control, and impact control to protect from damage — since any deviation may drastically affect the vaccine efficacy and deter on-time, in-full (OTIF) deliveries.
A lot of vaccines globally are lost to wastage due to exposure to heat or broken vials during transit. It must be managed by vaccine cold chain monitoring experts through a temperature-controlled supply chain. A temperature-controlled pharmaceutical supply chain safeguards the vaccine’s integrity and keeps it secure. Moreover, it needs to be packaged, handled, and moved efficiently since it is prone to impact damage.
Let us take you on a vaccine's journey from the manufacturer’s facility to the end-user through various milestones, overcoming all the pharma cold chain logistics challenges.
The Journey of a Vaccine from Manufacturing to Syringe
Despite all the technological developments around vaccine transportation, vaccine manufacturers and shippers must be well-equipped since it is one of the most at-risk items to get transported. There’s not just the regular risk of spoilage and breakage but also a considerable risk of theft, and a slight delay in the ETA could mean sizeable damage.
Here are the significant milestones in the journey of the COVID-19 vaccine, right from the manufacturer’s facility to the patient.
At the Manufacturer's Facility
The manufactured and tested vaccine is first stored in the manufacturer's refrigerated facility. This process isn't as simple as it sounds because the vaccine needs to be appropriately stored even before getting transported. The glass vials for the COVID-19 vaccines need to be much stronger than the standard ones since the vaccine needs to be kept in more durable and heat-resistant vials. This is because if the product inside these vials interacts with the glass that it's packed in, it could lead to drug degradation. Thus, it must be carried in robust vials that are shatterproof and won’t chemically react with the vaccine solution.
In the case of the Pfizer vaccine that requires -70 degrees Celsius, vials are then put into temperature-controlled thermal boxes surrounded by dry ice, which keeps the cold temperature stable.
Followed by Packaging
Once the boxes are packed, they are loaded onto pallets. Conventional tracking requires a download of data only at the end of the journey — when it’s too late to address problems. Unlike a regular vaccine, the COVID-19 vaccine will face an increased risk of spoilage and breakage due to the use of unfamiliar lanes and transport partners owing to the enormous distribution volume and urgency.
Thus, the pallets need to be secured with real-time sensor devices that monitor at a package level and can transmit information about the shipment’s condition and accurate location throughout the journey. These devices must continuously track temperature, pressure, humidity, tilt, shock, and ambient light, so you get instant alerts if any of the packages gets exposed or damaged, or has been moved or tampered with.
Loaded onto Refrigerated Trucks for Transportation
The next step is getting the vaccine loaded onto refrigerated trucks equipped to transport 2-8⁰C or frozen or ultra-cold cargo. This is an important step since the vaccine is not just prone to breakage but also exposed to a higher risk of theft. This makes it vital to monitor the temperature-controlled vaccine shipment’s status and keep a check on the route/carrier performance. Thus, feeds on live location, temperature, condition, and security are more important than ever to avoid operational disruption. This is where IoT-based sensors help in monitoring live location and condition at a package level.
After this, the vaccines meant to be distributed locally are taken directly to the vaccine centers, and those that have to be moved to another state or country are taken to the airport for loading on to the flight. Then begins an even trickier part of the journey.
And in Air Cargo
This step is the most important since hot runway tarmacs and careless cargo handlers can be the foremost reasons for vaccine breakage and spoilage. Anyone handling the vaccine must be qualified and adequately trained to handle it. In multimodal shipping scenarios like air shipping, there's always a chance of errors and delays caused due to manual updates since many people are involved. The risk of disruptions in air shipping is high due to multiple touchpoints.
Dry ice keeps these packages cool for ultra-cold chain shipments, but there are limitations on the quantity of dry ice that can be loaded onto airplanes since it is considered a hazardous material. Thus, the shipment temperature must be continuously monitored in the air and on the tarmac since even the slightest rise could render the vaccine less effective, and in some cases, even useless. This can be done using continuous temperature data logging during the flight journey that gets auto-updated as soon as the connectivity gets restored so that you're aware of any anomalies on the way.
As production volumes increase, ocean cargo will also be used to transport COVID-19 vaccines, just like some other regular vaccines, making the overall duration and time spent at transshipment points even longer and increasing risk!
The Last Mile — Landing at the Airport and Reaching the End-User
Once the vaccine shipment lands at a major airport, it's carried to the respective destinations. It is then loaded onto refrigerated trucks to be transported first to government medical store depots, state stores, district stores, and primary and community healthcare centers. Various participants in the supply chain handle the shipment during the journey, and there can be significant temperature differences at different destination airports. This puts the vaccines at a higher risk of damage caused by improper handling and temperature/humidity excursion.
The shippers need to continually keep an eye on baggage handling at airports or ports to ensure package condition and is well taken care of. This is only possible if the vaccine makers and shippers have a customized package-level visibility solution that provides real-time, on-demand signals to ensure they never miss an update right from the first mile to the last mile.
All the above milestones in the journey of the COVID-19 vaccine mainly reinstate two facts:
1. A pharma cold chain must always be well-equipped for a COVID-like pandemic, and
2. For successful vaccine transportation, it is necessary to optimize your vaccine cold chain monitoring solution.
There are some unique challenges in the COVID vaccine cold chain monitoring that every vaccine cold chain doesn’t face. Some of these challenges are — the unfamiliar shipping lanes, the unusually urgent requirement of the vaccine, the speedy development of the vaccine that allowed very little time for the supply chain professionals to prepare, and the added risk of theft. These unique challenges need to be met with unique solutions that involve complete visibility that only a comprehensive and scalable real-time visibility solution could bring.
Upgrading the cold chain equipment is very important, but not the only vital part of making the pharma cold chain logistics pandemic-ready. We should also be ready with well-trained cold chain professionals, better vaccine vials, more durable packaging, more qualified package handling staff, and better benchmarking of lanes, routes, and shippers.
All this, coupled with continuous real-time visibility, brings insights, foresight, analytics, and benchmarking that would aid better decision-making. A 24x7 smart supply chain control tower service that uses a combination of live sensor data, AI-enabled alerting & analytics, Robotic Process Automation (RPA), and human intervention to reduce operational risks and costs would help you achieve higher ROI.
The more carefully vaccines are handled, the fewer chances are there for them to reach damaged or delayed. Once the pharma cold chain is equipped with everything discussed above, we can ensure that the vaccines are safely delivered, fulfilling our most important objective: patient well-being.