“Pfizer Inc.’s experimental COVID-19 vaccine has emerged as the leading candidate to halt the pandemic but distributing it or any other vaccines poses massive logistical challenges that will test Canada’s health supply chain infrastructure and expose its weaknesses in the days and months ahead.
McKesson Corp., a leading health care distributor in North America, is warning Canada’s existing public and private vaccination delivery systems aren’t ready for a successful and widespread vaccination program. It says the special handling and storage required for the most promising vaccines and the sheer volume of doses to be distributed threaten to “overwhelm existing infrastructure.”
In the United States, the government has dispatched the military to oversee the rapid distribution of a vaccine as soon as one is ready, tapping its vast logistics power to ensure the co-ordination of private sector suppliers and freight transportation companies. In Canada, the federal government is taking the lead on sourcing and transport planning but it will fall to the provinces to ensure their citizens get the vaccine and any additional follow-up shots that are required.
Canada has struck supply agreements with seven pharmaceutical manufacturing groups to secure one or more vaccines that will allow the country to begin mass immunization. It has also begun preparation work on how to distribute the vaccines, a critical piece of the puzzle that has to be in place for quick and widespread treatment once a vaccine is approved by Health Canada.
“This will likely be the largest vaccination program ever and it will be rolled out in a very condensed time period,” said Sam Tarantino, head of logistics at Mississauga-based BioScript Logistics, a specialist in moving pharmaceuticals and medical devices that is vying for a piece of the work. “No one company or government will be able to manage it alone.”
Based on updates it has received from manufacturers including Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna, the Trudeau government is working on the premise that a vaccine could be ready for distribution starting in early 2021 with a vaccination program running through to the second quarter of 2022. It has drafted a list of requirements for supply chain logistics and is now short-listing potential companies to provide the transport, handling and security from end to end. It is encouraging companies to partner with one another.
The challenges involved are unprecedented.
Providing one and likely two doses of a vaccine to 35 million Canadians in all corners of a vast country within the space of a few months has never been accomplished. Even the largest public flu vaccination campaigns tend to distribute only about 15 million doses a year. In the case of COVID-19, the government is working toward providing 75 million doses.
Although the International Air Transport Association has warned that the air transport industry’s diminished cargo capacity could complicate efforts to distribute COVID-19 vaccines, that could be the lesser challenge. Maintaining the vaccine at consistently low temperatures throughout transit and repackaging could be far more difficult.
Some of the vaccine candidates need to be kept as cold as -80 C from the moment they’re made until they’re ready to be administered, which might happen days or even weeks later.
“There’s no airplane, or any boat or truck that can maintain -80 C for that length of time,” said Aaron Mitchell, chief executive of Human Logistics, an air charter brokerage working on a joint bid with partners. “People do not transport things at that temperature range every day, in our industry or many others.”
There’s also a major security risk. The federal government has made clear in public procurement documents that it considers COVID-19 vaccines to be “high value assets and high value targets for criminal elements” that will need to be kept safe.
“We don’t typically think of that in the day-to-day shipment of pharmaceuticals or food products but in this case it’s a real concern,” said Peter Evans, chief executive of Victoria-based Cryologistics, a Victoria-based refrigeration technology company that is involved in the process. “It could be stolen, it could be contaminated, it could be supplemented with a fraudulent product, which is not uncommon.”
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Among the federal government’s requirements, logistics companies have to be able to pick up frozen vaccines from international manufacturers by plane, bring them to Canada and then control vaccine inventory in warehouses for distribution. They’ll be expected to parcel out emergency orders anywhere in Canada within 48 hours, including to the most remote hamlets. They will also be required to ensure doses get to the thousands of Canadians serving abroad. The chosen providers will have to prove they can start work on the project by Dec. 15.
Companies are jostling behind the scenes to form alliances as they ready offers for their services. Among the corporations attending an Oct. 30 bidders conference were Air Canada, Brink’s, CargoJet, DHL and Shopper’s Drug Mart. McKesson’s Canadian arm is also in the mix.
McKesson has been tapped by the U.S. government as the centralized distributor of future COVID-19 vaccines and ancillary supplies such as syringes. McKesson is building four new centralized distribution centres to fulfill its mandate.”
Excerpt taken from: Developing a coronovirus vaccine is just the first step – distribution presents a whole new challenge.
Publication: The Globe and Mail
Written by: Nicolas Van Praet & Matthew McClearn