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Canada COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans attract big firms

UPS, FedEX, DHL, C.H. Robinson among logistics providers taking an interest in government contract

Canada has secured access to up to 358 doses of COVID-19 vaccine candidates, including Johnson & Johnson's (above). (Photo: Johnson & Johnson)

With plans to begin distributing COVID-19 vaccines in January, the Canadian government appears to have no shortage of companies interested in the massive, and potentially lucrative, logistics undertaking.

Representatives from 74 companies attended a bidders’ conference on Friday, where federal officials laid out the complex requirements for transporting as many as 358 million vaccine doses from manufacturers to locations across Canada. Among the companies attending were major logistics providers UPS, FedEx, DHL, Purolator, C.H. Robinson, TFI International, Air Canada, Bollore, Kuehne + Nagel, Bison Transport and Challenger. 

Details of that conference and the government’s vaccine distribution plans emerged in documents released on Tuesday by Public Services and Procurement Canada, which is overseeing contract bidding. A contract will be awarded by Nov. 23 to one or multiple companies, an unusually rapid pace.

Canadian government anticipates vaccines could be ready in January

The Canadian government is expecting that the first vaccines will be approved and ready for distribution in January, according to procurement documents. From there, vaccines are expected to arrive in phases, with distribution continuing into 2022. 

While Canada has secured agreements to purchase up to 358 million vaccine doses, it remains unclear how many it will ultimately need. Likely it will be fewer, considering Canada has a population of about 38 million people. The task of distributing the vaccines represents an unpresented logistics effort on the part of Canada. 

While more than 80% of the population lives in cities, largely near the U.S. border, vaccines will still need to get to people in the far-flung reaches of a country with the second-largest landmass in the world. There is also the matter of getting vaccines to Canadians serving in posts across the world.

The effort will require planes to transport at least some of the vaccines from Europe, in addition to temperature-controlled warehousing and lots of trucks — all while maintaining temperature requirements ranging from minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit) to slightly above freezing. 

Logistics providers encouraged to form joint ventures to distribute doses

While a single company could conceivably be awarded the entire contract, the government is encouraging joint ventures. The government also has not decided how much of the contract must be carried out by Canadian providers. 

The nature of the vaccine distribution appears to be fluid, considering that the vaccines are not yet approved. The Canadian government has secured access to three types of vaccines, each with its own temperature requirements.

The space requirements for the vaccines are also fluid, adding another wrinkle for suppliers. 

The government’s decision to engage in a transparent procurement process for vaccine logistics stands in contrast to how Amazon was chosen to distribute personal protective equipment in April. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau drew criticism over the move, even though Amazon reportedly agreed to do it at cost.  

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Nate Tabak

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One Comment

  1. Stephen Webster

    This should not be a money maker for the companies involved. They should not be allowed to charge more than the direct costs of the transportation and warehousing costs. No ( we) contractors.

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Nate Tabak

Nate Tabak is a Toronto-based journalist and producer who covers cybersecurity and cross-border trucking and logistics for FreightWaves. He spent seven years reporting stories in the Balkans and Eastern Europe as a reporter, producer and editor based in Kosovo. He previously worked at newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the San Jose Mercury News. He graduated from UC Berkeley, where he studied the history of American policing. Contact Nate at [email protected]