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COVID-19 vaccines: delivering them cold with DHL

Deutsche Post DHL Group can store and distribute COVID-19 vaccines at –70°C. Germany’s federal state Lower Saxony is the first to commission DHL. And DHL is well prepared for the rollout.

Meeting the logistical challenges set by COVID-19 vaccines

Vaccines represent our great hope in the fight against the pandemic. The first COVID-19 vaccines are on the verge of being approved in the European Union. And manufacturers have been producing them at speed for months already. But transporting the vaccines from the facilities where they are being produced to the places where they are to be used, not to mention the storage issues and total global volumes involved, represents a challenge. 

The key points are:

  • The Biontech (Germany) and Pfizer (USA) vaccine must be transported and stored at approximately minus 70 Celsius. This will probably be the first vaccine available in Germany.
  • Moderna (USA) has announced that its vaccine has a long shelf life at refrigerator temperatures.
  • Deutsche Post DHL Group estimates that worldwide around ten billion doses of vaccine will need to be transported by the end of 2022.
  • Ensuring the global delivery of COVID-19 vaccines via the various supply chains requires approximately 200,000 pallet shipments, 15 million cold-box shipments, and some 15,000 flights.
  • Currently, 51 potential vaccines are being tested in human clinical trials at research institutes around the world (as of Dec. 8, 2020). The number of approved vaccines will therefore certainly increase.

DHL Supply Chain to ship Biontech’s COVID-19 vaccine

The state of Lower Saxony is one of the first German federal states to commission DHL Supply Chain to store and transport the new COVID-19 vaccines. DHL will store around 2.2 million vaccine doses and approximately 350 pallets of vaccine supplies at two of its more than 140 certified Life Sciences & Health Care locations and transport them from there to the vaccination centers and hospitals in Lower Saxony. Negotiations with the governments of other German states are nearing completion.

Preparations for the upcoming COVID-19 vaccinations represent a huge organizational challenge on many different levels. And that is why I am delighted that the state government of Lower Saxony has signed a contract with DHL Supply Chain to put all vaccine logistics on a reliable and professional footing. DHL will store both the vaccines and vaccination equipment for us and ensure that the vaccination centers and hospitals are supplied with the vaccines.

Dr. Carola Reimann (SPD)
Minister for Social Affairs, Health and Equal Opportunities of the State of Lower Saxony

DHL has been working hard for months to combat COVID-19

Since the beginning of December, DHL Freight has been transporting syringes and equipment for the upcoming vaccinations to various European countries by road and is working on this task in close coordination with colleagues from the Group. A total of 23 truckloads are currently en route to the different vaccination points. DHL Freight has also been distributing the antigen rapid test since the end of October at the rate of two truckloads per week. Major manufacturers of vaccination supplies make use of DHL Freight's capabilities to supply vaccination centers quickly and safely.

The systematic expansion of the existing DHL Freight network infrastructure for distributing medical products for the "Life Science & Health Care" sector is a key factor if we want to remain a competent partner for our customers in the long term. The focus here is on security and full transparency in the transport chain.

Holger Schneemann
CSO DHL Freight

DHL has a proven track record in cold chain solutions for medicine

In order to meet the unique challenges involved in distributing vaccines, DHL has been in talks with vaccine manufacturers for months. Deutsche Post DHL Group's CSI Life Sciences & Healthcare business unit has many years of international experience in medical products. Using its Freight Coldchain solution, DHL Freight also operates an international network for temperature-sensitive products. However, additional resources have been built up at Deutsche Post DHL Group, particularly to deal with the COVID 19 crisis.

  • DHL has long been transporting medicines and vaccines packed in plastic boxes and dry ice (frozen CO2) by air and road. Such boxes can maintain a temperature of minus 70 degrees for up to six days.
  • DHL invested early in the expansion of its deep freezer farms and refrigerated warehouses. At a temporary storage facility on the German-Dutch border, for example, the company already has 58 Ultralow deep freezers. They have space for more than 25,000 vials, which could contain a good 100,000 vaccine doses.
  • At its Life Sciences & Healthcare division, DHL has 9000 specially trained employees worldwide, over 140 warehouses, and 120 handling centers.

Delivering COVID-19 vaccines to their point of use is a challenge

Making distribution work across Germany involves DHL as well as the authorities. Thomas Ellmann, Vice President, CSI Life Sciences & Healthcare Deutsche Post DHL Group, says:

  • Customs procedures need to run smoothly for imports into Germany.
  • Last-mile distribution must be well organized. This is the final leg involving the handover from the logistics provider to the vaccinating authority.
  • Pharmacies and doctors do not possess suitable deep-freeze capabilities.

DHL research points to the need for long-term strategies

A study commissioned by DHL shows what should be set up and what should be in place so that the transport of high-temperature-sensitive vaccines and other medical goods can run effectively. At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, there were problems supplying hospitals and care facilities with protective clothing. This highlights the need for new structures. With its research partner McKinsey & Company, DHL presented the results of the study in early September. The key points are:

  • To provide reliable medical care in future crises, governments must work with public and private sector partners to establish a system of crisis strategies and structures. 
  • Contingency planning, a network of collaborators, a strong physical logistics infrastructure, and IT-based supply chain visibility.
  • A crisis team with a clear mandate should implement critical activities in the short term.

DHL starts international COVID-19 vaccine distribution

DHL has started the international distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine to Israel in early December. The first batch was received by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “After numerous months of preparation, we are happy that our mission of vaccine distribution has now started and we could contribute our logistics expertise and capabilities to make vaccine accessible worldwide”, says Travis Cobb, Head of Global Network Operations and Aviation at DHL Express. “The current crisis has shown how indispensable international logistics networks are for ensuring that societies have the necessary personal protective equipment and test kits to secure their health.”

DHL is preparing to carry out further flights with vaccines from its worldwide operating hubs.

  • More than 9,000 specialists work across DHL’s dedicated global network to connect all players across the value chain.
  • DHL’s portfolio for the healthcare industry includes 150+ pharmacists, 20+ clinical trial depots, 100+ certified stations, 160+ GDP-qualified warehouses, 15+ GMP-certified sites, and 135+ medical express sites.
  • DHL´s international express network covers 220 countries and territories. Its aircraft fleet consists of more than 260 dedicated planes, numerous partner airlines, and a hub and gateway network spanning more than 220 countries and territories.

DHL is optimally equipped and prepared for a worldwide delivery of COVID-19 vaccines.

More on COVID-19 vaccines and pharmaceutical logistics:

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