Watch Now

Can a stressed cold chain successfully execute vaccine distribution?

Training in pharmaceutical handling and visibility tech will bolster vaccine integrity

Photo credit: Jim Allen/FreightWaves

Refrigerated freight tender rejections are skyrocketing at nearly 46% — a rate that’s seen steady growth since the beginning of COVID-19’s influence on consumer eating and shopping habits. Recently, J.B. Hunt  reported that the current high-demand environment would likely continue into the first quarter of 2021, which begs the question: Is the U.S. and international supply chain ready for COVID-19 vaccine distribution? 

Last month, the International Air Transport Association announced that 8,000 dedicated 747 jumbo jets were needed to distribute the 9 billion vaccines worldwide over the next two years. Eventually, those vaccines will be packed into temperature-controlled trucks that require close monitoring. 

“The vaccine distribution is going to be so challenging,” said Zac Rogers, assistant professor of operations and supply chain management at Colorado State University. “The Moderna and the Pfizer drug vaccine have to be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit. The Johnson and Johnson vaccine may be able to be stored at -4 degrees Fahrenheit. In the U.S., we’re pretty fortunate that we have a robust cold chain infrastructure, but some Third World countries don’t have good highways, much less a ton of reefer capacity. Everyone’s focused on getting the vaccine made, but distributing it internationally is going to be a real challenge.”

But one in four vaccines loses its integrity during transit, according to the World Health Organization and Parenteral Drug Association. These events are caused by both temperature excursions and damages incurred by sudden stops or accidents. But taking a damaged vaccine that’s supposed to be 80% to 100% effective when it’s only 50% is not the outcome the world has been desperately waiting for. 

Methods for maintaining pharmaceutical integrity range from well-designed loading methods to deploying visibility technology. Across the supply chain, everyone from the manufacturer to the transport provider to the end recipient in the health care community must be trained in pharmaceutical handling. This controlled approach ensures appropriate airflow, temperature and physical cargo stability to avoid spoilage, breakage and other types of damage. While shielding the vaccine from the elements during transit is an obvious goal, carriers must also keep in mind theft and acts of terrorism. 

“Maintaining the appropriate temperature of pharmaceutical products must be the guiding principle for everyone in the supply chain,” said Elizabeth Elkins, chief product officer at PowerFleet. “Utilizing technologies to monitor and report temperatures at any point during transport is critical, and employing multidimensional views of temperature at the container, pallet or even box level provides greater confidence about product efficacy.”

But cargo handlers and operators cannot stop with temperature checking. PowerFleet’s full suite of cold-chain solutions goes beyond monitoring and tracking, offering two-way command and control to change setpoint temperatures from dispatch or pre-start the chilling process before goods are loaded. Before a load potentially spoils due to cooling malfunctions, clients receive the information needed to take action. 

PowerFleet’s cargo visibility cameras use artificial intelligence to help customers validate that proper loading techniques were executed, and if not, the camera can detect anomalies. In such a high-stakes cold chain environment, shippers and carriers need as much transparency and accountability as possible, even if they are exonerated of any mishandling. 

For carriers that are expanding their private fleets to meet high volume demands, PowerFleet is providing reusable and transient cold-chain oversight options.

“Our clients can still maintain end-to-end visibility of pharmaceuticals when leasing external reefer units by utilizing our transient devices and sensors that ride along with the cargo, measuring temperature, humidity, impact and of course, location,” said Elkins. “These devices are monitored through the same portal as the private fleet and allow them to comply with the visibility, monitoring and auditing that their customers expect.”

Corrie White

Corrie is fascinated how the supply chain is simultaneously ubiquitous and invisible. She covers freight technology, cross-border freight and the effects of consumer behavior on the freight industry. Alongside writing about transportation, her poetry has been published widely in literary magazines. She holds degrees in English and Creative Writing from UNC Chapel Hill and UNC Greensboro.