Back in the late winter / early fall of 2020, the whole world became intimately familiar with the detailed innerworkings of the supply chain profession. As products such as meat, toilet paper, personal protective equipment (PPE), and cleaning supplies went from available to scarce overnight, consumers learned about warehousing, distribution centers, production schedules, and lean inventory management practices. Although these discoveries were largely the result of temporary system disruptions, they still increased consumer knowledge.
As we emerge from the peak of the COVID-19 crisis and move to ‘the new normal’ of long-term adjustment and recovery, people are about to discover a whole new type of supply chain operation: cold chain logistics.
As explained by RiskPulse, “Cold chain logistics (also referred to as chill chain logistics) is the transport of temperature-controlled goods, such as temperature-sensitive foods, beverages, and bio-pharmaceutical products.” For products that have to be stored and transported within a specified temperature range, every stage of the supply chain process – including warehousing, freight, and inventory – has to be controlled. This is absolutely critical in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Vaccines commonly travel via cold chain logistics, and given the importance of this particular vaccine, supply chains will have to be ready to perform.
But cold chain logistics is more complicated than just moving products at cool temperatures. It has to be possible to track and verify the conditions vaccine shipments are traveling in at all times, including the notoriously troublesome ‘final mile.’
According to The International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Center of Excellence for Independent Validators in Pharmaceutical Logistics, cold chain logistics remains a constant challenge for the healthcare supply chain:
- 25% of vaccines are degraded when they reach their destination because of “incorrect shipping”
- 30% of pharmaceuticals that cannot be used are disposed of specifically because of logistics problems
- 20% of temperature sensitive products are damaged because the cold chain is disrupted during transport
Typically, quality-related issues such as these could be addressed by shipping surplus , but in 2020, there will be so much demand for the COVID-19 vaccine once it is finally available that every lost or ruined dose will be keenly felt by medical professionals and patients alike. Protecting the usability rate of shipped vaccines will rely upon both tracking and final-mile handoff.
Cold Chain Traceability
We are fortunate to be facing this particular supply chain traceability challenge in an era of technology that is both high-performance and affordable. Shipment tracking sensors can report their conditions back to centralized monitoring locations and provide a record of temperatures throughout their journey. Not only does this make it easier for shippers to certify the efficacy of each vaccine shipment, temperature data can be compared to location details so that out-of-tolerance zones in the chain can be resolved in advance of future moving through them.
The Final Mile
Although ‘final mile’ challenges are usually associated with the cost and complexity of reaching millions of delivery points, the final mile of cold chain requires in the hands of the smallest carriers in the supply chain. If a vaccine shipment is being handed to a representative of the recipient, they must be prepared to accept it and have temperature-controlled storage capacity available. If the shipment is to be left unattended, it must have cooler packs (etc.) inside that provide cooling without coming into direct contact with the vaccine and actually freezing it. This will damage its effectiveness just as much as temperatures that rise too high.
Each shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine will have to travel through many hands and multiple channels between the originating facility and point of use. Failure to ensure the sanctity of the cold chain can lower the effectiveness of the vaccine. Keeping cold chain vaccine shipments within their approved temperature range is more than innovative supply chain management; it is a matter of life and death.