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The “massive challenge” of distributing millions of Covid-19 vaccines in the UK, as well as across the world, will largely rely on courier firms such as UPS, DHL and FedEx, according to logistics experts.

Following an announcement by Pfizer and BioNTech that its vaccine has become the first to clear interim clinical trials, courier giants are now mobilising their assets in order to fulfil one of the largest logistical operations in history.

However, there remain immense challenges in delivering the medicine, which must be kept at ultra-low temperatures, with supply chain experts questioning how it can be achieved at the necessary scale and speed.

Francesco Incalza, president at Thermo King Europe, Middle East and Africa, said: “Imagine devising a logistics plan to deliver 15 billion vaccines globally as fast as possible, not knowing where the manufacturing points will be and how cold the vaccine will need to be kept.

“These are just some of the challenges for cold-chain vaccine distribution.”

Thermo King said it is in “direct contact” with the refrigerated fleet owners of FedEx, UPS and DHL to respond to their additional capacity needs.

“Our team, along with our partners, has been engaged with pharmaceutical companies, 3PLs, transporters, policymakers, and additional industry leaders in the cold chain to discuss and help address the challenges of the mass distribution of a temperature-sensitive vaccine,” added Incalza.

“We want to make sure public and private sector leaders can effectively leverage our expertise.”

BIFA told that “the movement of the shipments at -70 degrees will be a problem”, an issue that tech firm Tevva also said would require an “additional layer of technology”.

David Thackray, Tevva sales and marketing director, said: “None of the existing standard vehicle park that deliver frozen foods can get to -70 degrees, the standard is -20 and the maintenance of that temperature is dependent on the insulation of the vehicle body itself.

“There may be vehicles out there now, for specialist medical purposes, but the scale of the vaccine distribution will require such a magnitude greater than these specialist vehicles.”

However, according to Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, the ambient temperature is not the biggest issue facing pharmaceuticals: “Pfizer have been quite clear that the vaccines will be moved in specially designed cold boxes,” he said.

“The vaccines will be loaded into containers, packed in with ice and kept at -70 degrees in those boxes.

“They are building a massive courier operation, effectively bypassing the more economies of scale cold chain operation that most pharmaceuticals would go through.

“It’s a massive challenge because of the size and speed, more than the temperature variable in the logistic element – it’s the management over the distance part of it.”

Mach 2 Shipping, a Heathrow-based company that specialises in the movement of goods for the pharmaceutical industry, questioned whether there were enough containers and dry ice to achieve the vaccine’s distribution: “But packaging companies are adamant they have the capacity in their networks to do everything they are currently doing and also handle the extra demand,” said Andy Hughes, Mach 2 Shipping commercial director.

“Their modelling is based on the vaccine not all coming at once.

“At the moment, there’s a scramble to upscale the dry ice packaging solutions.”

Hughes said the distribution would need to be “militarised” and added that the big courier firms have experience in this field: “If this is going to happen by the end of this year and the start of next then [Pfizer] will use FedEx, DHL and UPS.

“UPS has UPS Healthcare, DHL has DHL Life Sciences and FedEx has a history of doing lab shipments.”

A UPS spokesman said it was working “to deliver increased package volume as a result of the pandemic,” but declined to comment further.

David Pierpoint, MD at DHL Supply Chain Life Sciences & Healthcare, said: “The key challenge with the distribution of any vaccine is understanding the particular temperature requirements and the impact they have on the supply chain.

“Where the temperature requirements are -80°C there are likely to be a number of different pressure points that will require collaboration across public and private sectors globally to be managed.

“For example, distributors will need to manage the number of shipments and the required volume of dry ice, both in terms of the availability of suitable packaging as well as the maximum allowed quantities of dry ice in air cargo transport.

“Likewise, the physical handling of ultra-deep frozen shipments requires special equipment to avoid injury.”

Pierpoint added: “For several months we have been putting together plans to tackle these challenges in readiness for a vaccine to ensure we can support the global roll-out effort.”