Maritime Cold Chain Ready for Vaccine?

in Trends by
Photo of Reefer HELLAS STREAM by ship spotter Falkenstein_65

As speed to market is currently critical in tackling the pandemic, COVID-19 vaccines are only shipped by air at the moment. In the future, delivery by sea may become a viable alternative. We show the potential that shipping the vaccine by sea holds.

Speed is everything

The speed with which COVID-19 vaccines were developed was truly remarkable. Speed is equally critical in delivering the vaccine from the manufacturing plant to the recipient’s arm – not least due to the need for suitable cold chains that ensure the volatile vaccine stays stable. Three of the vaccines currently being administered come with greatly differing cold chain requirements. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine needs to be transported and stored at -70° C. in what is known as the ultra-low cold chain. Moderna’s vaccine has to be shipped at -20° C. in the so-called frozen cold chain. The Astra-Zeneca vaccine, in contrast, is less of a challenge as it can be shipped and stored in the customary refrigerated chain (+2-8° C.). As speedy delivery is vital in stemming the spread of the pandemic, vaccines are currently being shipped by air from one country to another or across vast landmasses such as the USA. But once the most urgent phase of the emergency is over, delivering vaccines by sea may become a viable alternative, especially once vaccine output rises to the volumes needed to protect the world’s population against COVID-19.

Pharmaceuticals by sea

What few people realize is just how well-established the maritime cold chain already is. In recent years, container shipping lines have gained a significant share of the global market for transporting pharmaceuticals – at the expense of their air-transport competitors. According to Thomas Stubler, the pharma industry cargo lead at Willis Towers Watson, a leading global advisory, broking, and solutions company, even before the pandemic broke out, an estimated 3.5 m tonnes of pharmaceuticals per year were shipped by sea, as opposed to 0.5 m tonnes by air. As confidence has grown in the quality and security of the maritime cold chain over the past two decades, Big Pharma has entrusted more and more of its products to shipping lines. AstraZeneca, for example, is estimated to have increased the proportion of pharmaceutical products shipped by sea from 5% in 2012 to nearly 70% in 2017.

Supply chain challenges

In an interview with Scientific American, Professor Julie Swann of North Carolina State University, a specialist in healthcare supply chains, explained the difficulties involved in maintaining the cold chain conditions required for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine: “One study estimated there are only 25 or 30 countries (worldwide) that have the ultra-cold infrastructure.” This is one major handicap in getting vaccine vials from production facilities to recipients. An additional complication is directly due to the pandemic – the massive decline in air travel. The number of passengers and flights has decreased dramatically since the global spread of the pandemic, and there are no signs of numbers returning to pre-COVID levels this year or next. Yet passenger flights used to carry a significant volume of airfreight, particularly high-value, low-volume goods such as pharmaceuticals. With a major share of passenger airline capacity already out of the market, there will be a clear demand for alternative supply chains once global vaccine production has geared up to the required levels.

Photo of Reefer COTE D IVOIRIAN STAR by ship spotter delrol

Maritime industry’s response

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently announced that 18 shipping and logistics companies, including Maersk, had signed a charter to work with the WEF, UNICEF, national and regional governments to ensure vaccines are distributed effectively. On request from UNICEF, these companies will assign expertise to support both governments and UNICEF’s Global Vaccine Logistics Distribution initiative, with a focus on international and domestic distribution solutions. Innovations in vaccine transportation technology are also playing a crucial role in making the maritime cold chain a viable alternative for transporting vaccines. L&R Kältetechnik, for example, has developed a solution to ship millions of vaccines in ordinary industrial containers. The air-cooled storage cell featuring redundant, multi-state refrigeration technology can be installed in a 20’ or 40’ container and maintains a permanent temperature of below -70° C. while requiring just one mains connection. Innovations such as this one could well enable a post-pandemic boom in refrigerated vaccine shipment by sea. As Thomas Stubler, the Willis Towers Watson expert, points out, “some container lines, particularly those with established cold chain infrastructure, partners and expertise, believe opportunities could materialize before the end of the year”.

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