By June Ramli
Singapore, Sept 20: Last December after close to a year of wrestling with the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore became the first Asian country to start vaccinating it’s residents, rolling out the vaccines to healthcare personnel and other essential workers. Now eight months later, close to 80 percent of Singaporeans have been vaccinated, and the country aims to gradually open up and return to life before the pandemic.
Critical to the success of the vaccination drive was logistics companies, who were responsible for the transportation and storing of these extremely temperature sensitive vaccines. One of the biggest challenges that needed to be overcome was cold-chain capacity. Two of the leading mRNA vaccines – Moderna and Pfizer – have to be stored and transported at temperatures of -20 ºC and -70ºC respectively, unlike any other vaccine. This, coupled with the storage and delivery of said vaccines in a hotter climate like Singapore, was unlike anything the logistics sector had dealt with before, and required new facilities and specially designed containers to ensure an uninterrupted cold chain throughout the journey.
Fortunately, logistics companies like Kuehne+Nagel, who were at the centre of these operations, were able to overcome these challenges. Kuehne+Nagel developed a regional hub strategy to offer COVID-19 vaccine storage at the necessary temperature ranges, as well as door-to-door services to transport the vaccine from manufacturer to clinic. With their expertise in healthcare and pharma logistics, and facilities at their Singapore Logistics Hub, the company has successfully transported, stored, and distributed the vaccines in Southeast Asia, and allowed for the vaccinations to proceed without hiccups.
DailyStraits.com is fortunate enough to speak to Kuehne+Nagel Asia Pacific, Pharma & Healthcare, Vice President Slobodan Boskovic (pictured above) to get a low-down on what Singapore is doing on its vaccine distribution.
Can you explain some of the challenges in developing sufficient cold chain capacity for storage and transportation of vaccines? What kind of supply chains did Kuehne+Nagel use to manage vaccine delivery?
Vaccines are stored and moved around the world by air and road at different temperatures, depending on the product requirements. For clinical trials, a high level of expertise is required to handle items such as vaccines and other pharmaceutical products. However, at present, not every country is fully equipped with temperature controlled storage capabilities – which makes transporting and distributing the vaccines a complex process. This is one major challenge that we had to work with as we prepared for vaccine distribution, and we began investing in warehouses with sufficient cold chain capabilities in Europe and the United States to serve those markets and allow for access to other parts of the globe. Another challenge is the highly sensitive nature of the vaccines itself. Deep-frozen storage capabilities with temperatures of -70ºC were required, and must be maintained throughout the journey. To ensure an uninterrupted cold chain at the necessary levels, Kuehne+Nagel developed a regional hub strategy which includes vaccine storage, transportation, and quality support services. To transport vaccines directly from the manufacturer to clinics, we also offered door-to-door services, backed by close to 250 Good Practice in pharma (GxP)-certified operations and more than 3,500 GxP-trained staff members. With this approach, we have shipped more than 450 million doses to date, serving the majority of countries with vaccines e.g. through COVAX.
When it comes to transporting vaccines, especially temperature-sensitive vaccines like the COVID-19 vaccines, how did Kuehne+Nagel achieve transparency in the supply chain, and provide guarantees to stakeholders involved?
Our KN PharmaChain service is an integrated, customisable solution to ensure the safe and efficient transportation of pharmaceutical and healthcare products. Our GxP-certified team designed a comprehensive supply chain that takes into the multitude of requirements and constraints for the COVID-19 vaccines, which includes in-transit monitoring tools, based on GPS live tracking technology allow as well as a dedicated 24/7 HyperCare team – people from all over the globe who are monitoring shipments with updates, to reassure customers that the products are moving safely. These provided extra transparency, end-to-end visibility, and exception management to key stakeholders, including vaccine manufacturers, governments, wholesalers, and distributors.
Balancing new waves of COVID-19 infections – how has Kuehne+Nagel been preparing for new rounds of COVID vaccination?
In the last decade, we have made significant investments in our pharmaceutical and healthcare distribution network, especially in designing and building capabilities for additional volume. Prior to the pandemic, we had invested in a state-of-the-art Logistics Hub in Singapore. The 50,000sqm distribution centre is specifically designed for the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry, with more than 40 per cent of the space equipped with temperature-controlled storage of 15-25°C, 2-8°C, -20°C and -80°C redressing and postponement services. It also serves as the regional warehousing facility for distribution in Asia Pacific. Additionally, we developed a COVID-19 Temperature Pod solution that allows countries to set up storage locations supporting distribution at the required temperature ranges. Utilising a 40 feet temperature-controlled sea container in a dedicated, secure yard, this solution provides agility and flexibility for COVID-19 vaccine distribution globally – and is used e.g. in Germany. The Temperature Pod will also be useful in handling distribution in remote areas.
How has Kuehne+Nagel been involved in COVID vaccine distribution in APAC and how does it see this involvement moving forward?
We have signed contracts for the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, including the Asia Pacific. Additionally, we are providing customers with logistics solutions to ship supporting materials such as syringes and vials. In Asia Pacific alone, we have more than 45 locations dedicated to the pharmaceutical industry, and our Singapore Logistics Hub is the regional warehouse facility for COVID-19 vaccination distribution. We are also aligned with vaccine suppliers, wholesalers, distributors and governments, to ensure smooth and seamless vaccine distribution in the region and worldwide. Looking ahead, we will continue optimising our approach, and working with manufacturers and customers to design a supply chain that is flexible and adaptable to the changing requirements and needs. Particularly in such a fluid and unpredictable situation, it is critical for us to constantly identify new risks and challenges and mitigate them ahead of time.
Why is the vaccine distribution process set to become more complex moving forward?
Changes in vaccine suppliers and different manufacturing sites can increase the complexity of vaccine distribution. A lack of medical supplies could also disrupt existing supply chains, should manufacturers have difficulty procuring the necessary vials and syringes. These items also need to be coordinated with evolving vaccine production to ensure that they are available at the right time and place, so this will require deeper involvement between manufacturers and logistics companies. Finally, we are constantly looking at distribution to remote areas with less established infrastructure. With complex and unique challenges in these areas, it will be vital to work closely with UNICEF, COVAX and vaccine manufacturers, and leverage air logistics solutions in the market.
What lessons can Kuehne+Nagel apply from experience to date in vaccine distribution, to the next rounds of vaccine distribution?
At Kuehne+Nagel, we have helped ship more than 450 million doses to date, serving the majority of countries around the globe. In response to the challenges faced in transporting the new COVID-19 vaccines, our team devised a temperature pod solution in the early stages of the pandemic, in addition to our established warehouses all being equipped with temperature-controlled storage capabilities. Through this, we understand that well-established handling processes, communication, and proper infrastructure will play a part in managing the complexity moving forward. With many years of vaccination distribution via our KN PharmaChain solution, Kuehne+Nagel is ready to support the next rounds of vaccine distribution worldwide.
How much does it cost to store the vaccines?
Each vaccine carries its own specific requirements, from different storage temperatures as well as storage locations, so it is difficult to put an exact number on it. For these reasons, we also saw the value in developing our modular Temperature Pod solution as an economical alternative to the conventional cold storage systems which needs to be built from scratch. This allows us to keep the overall costs low, and ensures that the vaccines can be stored properly and safely regardless of location.
How much revenue has the storage of vaccines contributed to your bottom line for the last and current financial year?
While our vaccine business has achieved significant growth in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic, vaccine storage specifically is still just a small portion of the Pharma and Healthcare sector of our business.
Do you foresee vaccine storage being a part of your core business in the coming years?
Pharma and healthcare logistics is one of Kuehne+Nagel’s core businesses, from personalised medicine, through to medical devices and medical equipment. Vaccines have been a part of that business and part of our overall pharma strategy for many years now, and we expect continued demand for vaccine storage and distribution in the near future.
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