Freight News, People, Logistics


Coronavirus Vaccine Distribution: the Most Complicated Logistical Challenge Since WWII

[ January 7, 2021   //   ]

Coronavirus vaccines are moving from the lab to the loading dock, prompting a sense of relief from the virus-weary public. Now comes the hard part. Delivering 14 billion doses to 7 billion human bodies around the globe. Assuming real-world conditions, that’s 20 million doses a day for two years.

Andrew Boyle offers this math to illustrate what he describes as “the most complicated logistical challenge since World War II.”

Boyle is co-president of Boyle Transportation, where the specialties include medical supplies. Weekly truckloads of vaccines are in the mix at Boyle’s company, and it’s from this vantage point that he makes clear, FDA approvals are the half-way point in the journey.

“The scientists, the clinical trial participants, the regulators, all associated with this effort have done heroic work,” Boyle told members of the Nevada Trucking Association in a recent Zoom presentation. “But the execution is going to come down to people like us. The blue collar logistics professionals. The people on the factory loading dock, the professional truck drivers, the air cargo handlers, the package sorters.”

The industry has a major role in a staggering task, even as it copes with its own challenges arising from the pandemic.

This year’s rush to online shopping has stretched shipping capacity. Illnesses have drivers in short supply. Driving schools have been shut down, limiting the influx of new drivers. In an unrelated event, the drug and alcohol clearinghouse removed thousands of drivers from service.
It’s against this backdrop, Boyle said, that trucking will be called upon to perform.

“We’re like a factory that’s running at 80 percent of capacity,” he said. “Yet we have 150 percent demand.

“There’s a lot of bravado among elected officials. I’m concerned because things are tight.”

Redirecting capacity from less productive market segments isn’t an option.

“The qualifications and certifications that are required for transporting injectable medicines are super-strict,” Boyle said. “So you typically can’t shift from chicken nuggets or ice cream, to doing vaccines.”

For perspective on Operation Warp Speed, Boyle overviewed the business models of the vaccine makers, and the normal course of events that bring vaccines to market. The companies that shaved years off the process also deprived themselves of time that would normally be used to develop supply chains and logistics plans. Boyle indicates that despite the accelerated pace that’s prevailed until now, supply chain issues, indeed, may be rearing their heads.

The vertically integrated pharmaceutical entity – which Boyle did not identify by name – will rely on its own well-developed distribution methods, which include carriers UPS and FedEx going the last mile. The other entities outsource their manufacturing, packaging and distribution.

That’s where reliance on Warp Speed comes in. Wisely, Boyle said, the government did not try to create its own logistics.

“That infrastructure already exists,” he said. The government is leveraging expertise and infrastructure from McKesson, which Boyle says distributes 150 million vaccine doses per year.

The United States can rise to the moment. Less developed nations will lag, lacking necessary refrigeration and road systems.

“Twenty million doses a day for two years is an enormous scale,” Boyle said of the goal to inoculate all of the planet’s inhabitants. “Even if you cut it by 30 percent it’s still a massive undertaking.”

“Our people are going to play an integral role in getting these products to market. They’re proud and they’re ready.”

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