“I’ve been inundated with packaging providers and other manufacturers coming forward with innovative ideas about how to help manage the temperature regimen,” said Larry St. Onge, Life Sciences and Health Care President for DHL, regarding the changes brought to cold chain shipments by the pandemic. “The big focus at the moment has really been on the vaccines.”
Cold chains have had the task of adapting to innovative new methods of shipping medical supplies deemed essential throughout the coronavirus pandemic, with shipping containers undergoing redesign strategies and temperature conditions needing boosted monitoring methods. DHL Group, in particular, has been collaborating with partners like pharmaceutical manufacturers to determine the best ways to avoid any monitoring or packaging mistakes.
For the vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech, conditions must be regulated at 94 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, which will require thermal sensors that are enabled by GPS and that have a location- and temperature-tracking control tower to closely monitor every single shipment of vaccines.
“An example of innovation that we’ve seen come forward is the ability to be able to utilize passive containers where you can easily replace the dry ice and essentially have an effective temporary storage unit,” explained St. Onge. “Certainly, we’re considering the context of the solutions we’re bringing to bear for customers as we go forward.”
Condition tracking, especially when it comes to temperature monitoring, has been extraordinarily important for trucking companies transporting the vaccine, even among companies that are well-accustomed to shipping vaccines, like Boyle Transportation.
“It would often be performed at the truckload level, but not necessarily at the individual package level,” said co-president of Boyle Transportation and vice chairman at American Trucking Associations, Andrew Boyle, in regards to strategy updates surrounding temperature tracking.
Many cold chain shipment companies find no surprise in these vaccine-distributing challenges, and some say that COVID-19 has only brought increased focus to the difficulties that often arise with these efforts.
“The pandemic has drawn incredible scrutiny on the cold chain because of the exact temperature requirements of these vaccines,” said Joe Battoe, CEO of Varcode.
In October, Sensitech and Carrier, subsidiaries of Carrier Global Corp, were met with monitoring and packaging challenges when the Carrier Pods system was announced. Carrier Pods was developed in order to help vaccine distribution efforts with capabilities including product visibility, data analytics, deep-freeze cooling, and real-time telematics.
Another issue that arose with the desperation brought about in the difficult circumstances of the pandemic–vaccine, medicine, and medical equipment theft occurring on big rigs.
“Many concerned with theft and diversion are adding additional layers of risk mitigation,” said a spokesperson for Sensitech. “Others are more concerned with keeping a closer eye on temperature changes for their vaccine shipments and want an early warning signal if the temperature is trending in the wrong direction.”
Varcode, in particular, had already developed a specific bar code that can change via chemicals to display certain information to a viewer, including whether or not a particular package has reached temperatures outside of what was intended. The company began collaborating with PL Developments in January for the purpose of boosting not only the capabilities, but the overall availability of this monitoring method.
“COVID itself, not just the vaccine, has brought all these issues into focus and brought new challenges,” said Varcode’s Battoe. “There are wildly different temperature requirements at a scale that’s just absolutely unprecedented. That is driving innovation.”
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, biopharma typically loses around $35 billion each year due to temperature-controlling failures, according to the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science. The International Air Transport Association determined that nearly 25% of all vaccines have become degraded upon arrival, as well.
Because of major distribution and monitoring challenges like these, a huge boost in innovations for cold chains focusing on temperature control and real-time visibility has been a long-term top priority for the industry, said Andrew Stevens, an analyst for Gartner Research.
“The cold chain is very much multilayered, in that there are approaches that you can take both in terms of protecting the inherent temperature of the product across all of its logistics and transportation phases,” Stevens said.