What COVID Taught Us About Cold Chains: A Crucial, Hidden Side of Global Logistics

What COVID Taught Us About Cold Chains: A Crucial, Hidden Side of Global Logistics

By Nick Bartlett on January 2, 2022
For most people, the phrase ‘international shipping’ might bring to mind container ships stacked high with pallets, a long-haul truck loaded with electronics, or simply a giant stack of Amazon boxes. But there’s another, sometimes overlooked, aspect of...

Like a great many details within supply chains, the transport of medical goods has remained largely in the background of day to day life until very recently. Today, however, it can’t be ignored.

The WHO estimates that almost 50% of vaccines around the world are wasted, a chief cause of which is cold-chain shipping inefficiencies.

Amid the ongoing COVID pandemic, the difficulties of achieving medical breakthroughs have come in tandem with another challenge: global transport of perishable, temperature-controlled goods.

Read on to dive deeper into what it takes to ship temperature-sensitive materials and see how the global logistics market can be ready in the future.

What is the cold chain?

So how, exactly, can medical goods make it from a lab in Frankfurt to a remote village in Sub-Saharan Africa quickly while maintaining a specific temperature?

Enter: the cold chain, a key facet of public health.

The cold chain refers to the coordinated movement, storage, and management of goods through temperature-controlled environments to reach an end destination. For cold chain shipments, the temperature from start to finish needs to be kept between 2°C (35°F) to 8°C (45°F). 

Goods transported through cold chains include:

  • Perishable foods, especially produce

  • Pharmaceuticals

  • Chemicals used for research and development

  • Biopharmaceuticals, such as blood, plasma, or stem cells

Logistics operations under the cold chain are under tight — and consequential — deadlines while still needing to meet strict cross-border criteria and quality control checks. Backlogs at international shipping ports don't just mean products arrive late to the doorstep; they mean essential medical goods can’t be used at all.

With entire shipments on the line, it’s no wonder that many logistics providers choose methods with greater intervention to secure medical and cold-stored goods. That’s why there are both active and passive cold chain packaging systems. Active packaging uses temperature controls that can be altered during transport to match specifications while passive utilizes phase change materials such as ice to maintain temperature. 

Though active systems are generally more expensive, they allow for more ‘wiggle room’ in terms of delivery time. Passive cold chain management, on the other hand, leaves less room for error. For fast distribution, like in the case of COVID vaccines, passive containers are preferred as they are lighter and allow for more doses to be transferred quickly within single shipments. 

But because different vaccines have different chemical makeups, logistics options — and need ongoing assessments rather than quick fixes meant to fit all situations.

COVID has revealed the true complexity of medical supply chains

As vaccine production ramped up over the past eighteen months, distribution didn’t always follow the same clip — especially in the developing world.

According to figures from December 2021, nine billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide. In low-income nations, however, under 4% of people are fully vaccinated. In addition to the costs associated with purchasing vaccines from multinational distributors, ensuring they make it to vaccine sites poses another formidable challenge.

For pharmaceutical goods to both reach their end destination and be approved for safe use, it’s often a highly-sophisticated, multi-step process. After arriving in a port of entry, vaccines will typically be:

  1. Inspected and cleared by port authorities and customs officials

  1. Transferred to a large-scale medical warehouse, where regulators perform another quality assurance check then re-package vials into more compact units

  1. Transported to regional medical storage facilities 

  1. Split up — again — into smaller packages that can be delivered by truck, by car, by boat, by motorbike, and more

  1. Distributed to citizens at hospitals, field clinics, or community centers

Analysis from McKinsey also notes that the medical supply chain in developing countries, “is complex and fragmented, with many different configurations, levels of supply-chain maturity and performance, and degrees of private-sector involvement.” 

And while the technologies for the cold chain are slowly but surely being integrated, COVID vaccines like Pfizer-BioNTech need to be frozen between -90°C and -60°C (-130°F and -76°F) to be stored for longer than six weeks. This requires the uptake of what is known as the ultra cold chain (UCC). 

To facilitate widespread vaccine accessibility, it takes a coordinated effort between nations and medical institutions. All parties need to be attuned to the many factors  — including weather, governmental involvement, and regional infrastructure — that influence global supply chains. Every point of the journey needs to be performed carefully, all the way from packing medical supplies onto jets to securing reliable last-mile transport

Logistics consulting for businesses looking to the future

Even if your business isn’t responsible for solving worldwide calamities, things can still take an unexpected turn. A new shipping environment is speeding up consumer expectations while shifting norms in e-commerce and online purchasing offer a chance to reach new markets across the globe. You need to be ready to adapt — and that takes a network of highly-specialized partners.

At CBIP Logistics, we’ve seen first-hand how complicated shipping can be for growing companies. But you shouldn’t miss out on opportunities to make real growth just because your needs change — our team of experts is ready to analyze your supply chains and offer a sustainable way forward. 

With regional partners strategically placed around the world and a 4PL that maximizes flexibility, you won’t get held back by providers who can’t meet your needs. 

We’re ready to listen, learn, and find a custom logistics plan to match your business. Get in touch today and take the first step.

About Author

Nick Bartlett

Nick Bartlett is CBIP’s director of sales and marketing. His expertise lies in marketing, supply chain management, and corporate retail experience. He honed his skills over 10+ years working across the Asia Pacific region and beyond.

Nick keeps a close eye on new markets and believes successful business operations come through value-based relationships.

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