Pfizer's vaccine must be stored at -70C © Jeenah Moon/Getty Images
Pfizer's vaccine must be stored at -70C © Jeenah Moon/Getty Images

Doubts over 'unprecedented' Covid vaccine supply chain

Will Green is news editor of Supply Management
10 November 2020

Distribution of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine will require the creation of an entirely new supply chain, according to industry experts.

The Pfizer vaccine must be stored and transported at -70C and in the US the company is developing its own supply chain to enable this.

Shane Brennan, chief executive of the UK Cold Chain Federation, told SM the country’s cold chain tended to operate at -10C to -20C.

“There is no large-scale capacity in the UK supply chain for storing and moving product at -70C,” he said.

“They [Pfizer] have designed a bespoke cold box which uses dry ice to maintain product at -70C. That in itself is a significant supply chain innovation. It’s a highly innovative and likely highly expensive supply chain that they are talking about.

“There is as much innovation in getting the supply chain to work as probably in developing the vaccine.

“It’s unprecedented in scale, ambition and expense.”

In the US Pfizer will be bypassing its usual wholesale distribution partners to deliver the vaccine, spokesperson Kim Bencker told NBC News.

Instead the vaccine will be shipped from production facilities by air freight and then delivered by ground transport to dosing locations. GPS tracking and thermal sensors will monitor shipments.

“We have developed detailed logistical plans and tools to support effective vaccine transport, storage and continuous temperature monitoring,” Bencker said. “Our distribution is built on a flexible just-in-time system, which will ship the frozen vials to the point of vaccination.”

On Monday Pfizer said early results showed its vaccine could prevent more than 90% of people contracting coronavirus.

Richard Wilding, professor of supply chain strategy at Cranfield University, said distributing the vaccine was “likely to be one of the biggest logistical challenges we have faced this century”.

“What we will see is essentially like a product launch, with a fast ramp-up, then a different supply chain for when it reaches a steady state, then one for a decline in demand,” he said.

“Just like a product launch, as well as the availability of product, you also have to generate demand by persuading the population that they must get the vaccine, the demand creation element. Logistics and supply chain practice is about fulfilling this demand.”

Wilding added: “Reports that the Pfizer drug needs to be stored at -70C will only add to the complexity around transportation and storage logistics with specialist storage needed.

“The specialist infrastructure and storage equipment will become a supply chain in its own right with its own manufacturing and distribution processes attached to it. Stresses on this supply chain will have then impact on how much vaccine you can move.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said the UK was prepared to roll the vaccine out.

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