Companies that haul pharmaceuticals are picking up truckloads of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna facilities.  -  Photo: CRST

Companies that haul pharmaceuticals are picking up truckloads of vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna facilities.

Photo: CRST

The logistics challenge of transporting and distributing the COVID-19 vaccine has been compared to climbing Mount Everest. “Developing vaccines and getting them licensed is like building a base camp at the bottom of Mount Everest,” said Kate O’Brien, director of WHO’s Department of Immunization, Vaccines and Biologicals, in a World Health Organization Q&A broadcast last fall. “Actually getting to the peak is the delivery part.”

She added, “There’s going to be a struggle, frankly, in every country about how to do this.”

Her sentiments started bearing out just weeks into efforts to distribute Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines in the United States. Capacity constraints, temperature-control needs, and labor issues stack the deck for trucking and delivery fleets transporting the vaccines.

Operation Warp Speed, the federal government’s program to hasten the development and distribution of the vaccines, has been criticized for falling short of its goals. Nevertheless, in the four weeks since the first vaccine was administered Dec. 14, as of Jan. 11, nearly 25 million doses had been shipped, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those numbers are expected to ramp up rapidly. President-Elect Joe Biden has promised 100 million vaccinations in the first 100 days of his presidency, saying he will use the Defense Production Act as needed to help produce materials and asking Congress to provide funding for state and local governments to handle their end of things.

The unprecedented, massive effort requires fleets to transport millions of vaccines while keeping their precious cargo at 94 degrees below zero for the Pfizer vaccine – a full 50 degrees colder than any other vaccine – and at minus 4 degrees for Moderna’s vaccine.

The Arctic temperature requirements necessitate expedited deliveries with minimal handoffs by carriers that specialize in temperature-validated transport to minimize loss. WHO estimates nearly 20% of temperature-sensitive healthcare products get damaged during transport and 25% reach their destination in a degraded state because of breaks in the cold chain – unacceptable losses for a vaccine meant to fight a virus that has killed over 350,000 Americans.

The federal government turned to the cold chain capabilities of FedEx and UPS.  -  Photo: FedEx

The federal government turned to the cold chain capabilities of FedEx and UPS.

Photo: FedEx

Compounding Capacity Constraints 

The heavy lifting for vaccine transport falls to the nation’s unsung heroes: trucking fleets. Vaccine manufacturers first tapped package-delivery giants FedEx and UPS for vaccine transport, with truckload fleets such as Boyle Transportation and CRST rounding out the mission. 

Taking capacity from these pharmaceutical logistics fleets puts pressure on all trucking fleets at a time when capacity constraints are high as businesses restock depleted inventories after a busy holiday season.

“This is as tight a driver market and the most stretched supply chain the industry has ever seen, and vaccine transport will make it even tighter,” said Chad Brueck, president of the Expedited Solutions division of CRST.

Before transport efforts began, Andrew Boyle, co-president of Boyle Transportation, sounded the alarm about the capacity crunch at a Nevada Trucking Association meeting in early December. “We’re like a factory that’s running at 80% capacity… yet we have 150% demand. That’s pretty tough,” he said. 

Modelling by ABI Research supports Boyle’s concerns. Early modeling by the global tech market advisory firm projected that there will be at least 857 temperature-controlled trucks leaving Pfizer and Moderna manufacturing facilities or distribution centers each month during 2021, “marking 2021 as the Year of Cold Chain Logistics,” it proclaimed in a December press release. And that’s just the first two vaccines approved. The CDC is evaluating more candidates.

Brueck wants to see the industry band together to get vaccines out. “We must work together for the greater good. It involves partnerships between transportation providers, customers, vaccine manufacturers and vendors,” he says. “Everyone must understand the urgency and that we cannot miss a single load.” 

UPS delivering COVID-19 vaccines.  -  Photo: UPS

UPS delivering COVID-19 vaccines.

Photo: UPS

CRST identified its vaccine transport strategy in a six-month planning effort. Its pre-planning addressed mechanical breakdowns, temperature drops, team drivers and escorted loads. The company worked with Freightliner to keep trucks moving when hauling vaccines.

“But this effort is not just about the trucking portion,” Brueck says. “There’s also distribution and manufacturing. All these entities must work together to pull it off. We need to provide almost transparent visibility to customers and receivers to make sure they understand that we have a vaccine load headed their way and when it will arrive to get it unloaded and on its way.” 

Chris Orban, vice president of data science for Trimble, puts a positive spin on tight capacity. He says that while fleets are busy, “trucking always rises to the occasion in situations like these.” 

Breaking Down Data Silos

Nevertheless, the vaccine distribution effort exposes strengths and weaknesses across supply chains and in trucking, according to Orban.

“Even fleets that are not part of this specialized effort are affected,” he says. “Are they getting the information they need to pick up the slack or the demand? We are seeing a need for greater connectivity, not just in the cold chain, but across the industry.” 

To transport vaccines, Pfizer developed specialized pallets that use dry ice to keep vials cold and connected internet-of-things sensors to check vial temperatures. They place these pallets into Carrier Pods monitored by Sensitech IoT sensors to make sure container refrigeration remains at dry ice conditions. Sensors within the trailer itself watch reefer temperatures. All these sensors dispatch information during transport.

“The data allows fleets to monitor and adjust temperature in real time to maintain a compliant temperature during transport,” Orban says. “It gives fleets the ability to react should temperatures head in the wrong direction … and to reroute a shipment to avoid loss.” 

Though the data goes to affected fleets, there’s a problem in that it rests in data silos other fleets cannot access, he says. The effects are significant. Consider that CSafe Global estimates available cold chain capacity at 15% and that information on capacity sits in data silos. “[If the vaccine distribution impacts cold chain capacity], how do fleets learn that refrigerated capacity or specialized pharmaceutical capacity is down by 20, 30, 50 or 80%?” Orban asks. “They are not connected to the data.”

Visibility of vaccine loads and overall refrigerated capacity is vital. Better communication is needed between between carriers and shippers and could be addressed through technoloogy such as Trimble's Community Load Match, pictured.  -  Photo: Trimble

Visibility of vaccine loads and overall refrigerated capacity is vital. Better communication is needed between between carriers and shippers and could be addressed through technoloogy such as Trimble's Community Load Match, pictured.

Photo: Trimble

But vaccine distribution impacts all carriers, he says. Let’s say a pharmaceutical customer needs to release a cancer drug and requires keeping doses cold. They may ask: “Who can help me transport this drug? My specialized transporter is 100% committed for the next 12 months for COVID vaccine transport.” But they may struggle to find answers. “The capacity is so tight, and yet, we don’t share this information across the industry,” Orban says.

He puts the blame on a lack of trust. “There has always been a contentious relationship between shippers and carriers,” he says.

When load volume dropped during the coronavirus shutdown last spring, shippers pressured carriers to lower their prices, knowing fleets had extra capacity, he explains. “Now that’s changed, and there’s a capacity crunch. Fleets repurposed their trucks to do new things and find new ways to make money. Now shippers must pay higher rates,” he says. “But did it have to be that way? Could we have had a fairer marketplace if we trusted each other and openly shared information?”

Industry players, he says, must generate opportunities for shippers and carriers to share information and incentivize them to share it. “We must share more information, to say, ‘Here’s an opportunity to move more freight and keep drivers rolling. Here’s an opportunity where I will not have to deadhead a driver 200 miles to pick up a critical load, instead I only must deadhead him 20 miles. Here’s an opportunity to get my driver home to see his family by finding a backhaul that matches where he wants to go.’” 

Chris MacDonald, senior vice president and general manager-Americas at Orbcomm, says vaccine transport puts technology to the test and spotlights the true advantages of connected fleets and information-sharing. The investment in visibility pays off as customers know exactly when freight will arrive and can better plan downstream handling. “Companies with connected fleets and real-time visibility for shipments will have a competitive advantage,” he says. 

But Carrier Logistics Inc. President Ben Wiesen still sees hurdles to clear. “If sensors don’t work, you lose visibility,” he says. “As much as we have focused on physical infrastructure like refrigerators, trucks, drivers and technology investments, we need to focus on hardening computer systems to make them more secure and less likely to fail.” 

Remember the Last Mile

Last-mile delivery challenges already abound, even without the vaccine. Delivering packaged products from a warehouse to their destination is plagued by last-minute changes, misalignment with warehouse operations, rebounds, unnecessary logistics costs, and on-time delivery issues, finds a report by Statistica. 

Add in Coronavirus’ logistics impacts, and “final mile delivery has been incredibly stressed,” says Orban. “The postal service is overwhelmed. Even companies like FedEx and UPS are facing unique challenges.”

Wiesen specializes in last-mile delivery. He, too, says COVID-19 has magnified last-mile delivery challenges. “Last mile,” he says, “is always one of uncertainty. Shippers do not preschedule deliveries. Carriers learn when shipments need to move minutes before they need to move them.”

Fleets try to predict demand, but Wiesen admits operations remain very reactionary. “Drivers never know in the morning what they will pick up in the afternoon, let alone what they will deliver over the next two to three days,” he says. 

Shipping and delivering vaccines adds to the complexity, especially as distribution rolls from large urban areas to more remote locations with smaller populations, warned Susan Beardslee, ABI Research’s principal analyst for freight transportation and logistics, in a Wall Street Journal article titled, “Vaccine Transport Leans on Tight Network of Refrigerated Truck Operators.”

“If you think of rural populations, you’re not necessarily going to bring in a tractor-trailer,” she told the paper. “In a remote area, where are you going to find those drivers that are available and used to handling [temperature-sensitive] pharmaceutical products?”

Vaccine distribution will happen amid this uncertainty and without a canned solution, warns Wiesen. “Everyone has the best of intentions, but there is no real solution to this problem, especially with the vaccines, which require specialized equipment to handle very sensitive temperatures,” he says. 

But Wiesen sees a light shining in the darkness for last-mile beyond vaccine delivery. “The concept of service failure has changed in last-mile delivery,” he says.

He explains the industry once viewed missing next-day delivery as a cardinal sin. But COVID shutdowns increased consumer tolerance for longer delivery times. “It became less of a problem because we replaced next-day delivery with effective visibility and tracking. People have learned that not getting a box they expected isn’t the end of the world, because they can see where it is and predict when it might arrive,” he says. “Visibility has become as important, if not more important, than actual service levels.” 

Orban reports 2020 capacity constraints led distributors and fleets to increase automation and tracking, especially with last-mile deliveries. He believes this trend must continue.

“Humans are very involved in the last mile. They need to find the right address and get the package to the right person,” he says. “We need to provide the right tools to support them. We also need to ask if we have enough people and whether we are paying them properly.” 

Last-mile challenges present lucrative opportunities for fleets hoping to grow. This compounds as fleets specialize to take part in vaccine delivery. “The final mile has created unique growth opportunities for many non-traditional carriers. Fleets looking for a bigger piece of the pie can find it in last-mile deliveries and in the pharma world,” MacDonald says.

New Look at Labor Issues

It’s no secret that truck drivers, warehouse workers, supply chain personnel and others are in short supply. Normal seasonal shopping combined with increased online shopping to avoid virus exposure and more warehouse workers or drivers down with COVID-19 amplified worker demand.

That labor shortage was whipped into a frenzy when vaccine distribution entered the mix. Carriers use two-driver teams for vaccine shipments to keep trucks moving and security escorts to protect against cargo loss. 

“We have a driver shortage and have had one for some time,” says Orban. “What’s frustrating to me is the waxing and waning of concern over it. Trucking companies shut down hiring at the start of the crisis because they didn’t know what was going to happen, and now we need more drivers. But driver training schools also shut down during that time.” 

Commercial truck driving carries a reputation for long hours, low pay, and a low regard for the work. “This is a stressful job made more so during the crisis. Would you want to join the industry right now?” Orban asks. 

But the industry can and must attract more drivers. Vaccine transport and working throughout the pandemic did elevate the reputation of the profession among the public. Changing sentiments sets the stage for higher pay and better incentives. “We need more incentives for good, safe performance and more opportunities for drivers to grow their careers,” Orban says.

CRST’s Brueck adds that vaccine transport ­– and the past year – created a greater need for local delivery drivers and more jobs for long-haul drivers. He believes more opportunities will propel the industry to offer higher compensation and better work-life balance to these dedicated professionals. 

“Operation Warp Speed transport efforts represent another instance where truck drivers stepped up and took care of the rest of us in 2020,” he says. “I hope that that the long-term result is an elevated image of trucking and a renewed respect for our drivers.” 

Ronnie Wendt is a freelance writer based in Waukesha, Wisconsin, who specializes in writing about logistics and supply chain issues.