Behind the scenes of an expectant world, an army of logistics professionals are working around the clock to deliver the COVID-19 vaccines to the many affected countries.

Estimates are that some eight to ten billion vaccines will be shipped across the globe and different manufacturing vaccine has unique handling requirements specifically to maintain a range of low temperatures during storage, transportation and distribution.

Air cargo will be the initial preferred mode of transport in the first phase due to the urgency, however, the sheer number of vaccines for the global population will require an estimated 60,000 ocean reefer containers for distribution of the vaccine over a period of two to three years.

Thomas Stubler, the pharma industry cargo lead at Willis Towers Watson, told Splash 24/7 that at present, speed to market is critical to stemming the spread of the pandemic, so the vaccines are being shipped by air to international destinations.

However, ocean transport is certainly a longer term strategy; once demand means that delivery times are in weeks, rather than hours according to Stubler.

The ocean cold chain infrastructure is already in place and many vaccines are already being transported by sea. After the initial surge in demand, when vaccine production schedules become more predictable, opportunities could materialise before the end of the year.

Pre-Covid, the ocean cold chain transported 3.5 million tonnes of pharmaceuticals, compared to 0.5 million tonnes by air. AstraZeneca, one of the makers of Covid-19 vaccines, reportedly increased the proportion of pharma products it ships by sea from 5% in 2012 to nearly 70% in 2017, reported Splash 24/7.

Requirement of ocean reefer containers will depend on various factors, such as the temperature at which the vaccines will be stored or shipped. The containers that are used for storing pharma products are manufactured separately and are generally not the same that are used for shipping, said Satish Lakkaraju, Chief Commercial Officer, Agility Logistics Pvt Ltd, told The Hindu Business Line.

“The reefer containers used for shipping pharma are already in high demand. We have always given priority to pharma over other products and if the need arises, we have to prioritise vaccines and the same will be done,” he added.


The task of distributing a COVID-19 vaccine around the world has been compared to a lunar moon mission by many, given the enormity and complexity of the tasks involved.

According to The International Air Transport Association (IATA) some 8,000 Boeing 747 freighters will be needed to carry the 7.8 billion doses required for a single-shot immunisation of the global population.

There are some 250 vaccine development programmes in progress around the world, but it is expected that global distribution will be a longer sustained programme rather than an one large one-off project.

According to a study by McKinsey, announcements from manufacturers indicate that global production capacity could be between eight and nine billion by the end of this year (2021).


At the heart of the biggest peace time logistics project is the need for optimised planning, with delivery of the vaccine in good condition to each recipient as the focal point. According to KPMG speedy execution, minimum wastage at an agreed cost are the primary goals.

“Using existing distribution and cold storage facilities, that are currently used for flu jabs and other vaccines means that the cold chain does not have to be re-invented but scaled up where and when needed,” according to the KPMG report ‘Five ways to optimize the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain.’

Within many large global logistics companies’ specialist COVID-19 teams are being established to ensure successful and timely delivery to recipients. Kuehne and Nagel, a global transport and logistics company, is combining the expertise of its pharma & healthcare vertical team with members of QuickStat (Kuehne+Nagel’s clinical trial team) to explore the best delivery methods.

A combination of air, sea and road logistics are being used to move the vaccine around the world while storage and distribution channels are defined and dry ice, packaging and other materials are prepared.

Connecting across modes will also be critical in maintaining the vaccines in optimal condition, transferring shipments between air and road, via temperature-controlled warehouses will be key to successful delivery.


Airliners, such as Cathay Pacific (CX) started preparing for the roll out of the vaccines last year (2020), bringing together Commercial, Product, Revenue Management (which looks after inventory), and Service Delivery teams, as well as managers from the Cathay Pacific Cargo Terminal. Then critically CX invited Cargo Managers from overseas ports close to vaccine manufacturing sites to have real time information about vaccine production and delivery schedules from around the world.

“They are our eyes and ears,” says John Cheng, Head of Cargo Marketing and Products of CX, told Cargo Clan.

CX then realised they would have to develop a customised vaccine solution and so they integrated elements of their Pharma LIFT and Priority LIFT and combined it with its multidimensional tracking and data-logging system Ultra Track to track-and-trace, record and transmit GPS position, temperature, vibration and humidity in near real-time, making it ideal for temperature-sensitive and fragile shipments.

The system will work in tandem with the newly established Operations Control Centre based in Hong Kong. Working in shifts, the team monitors shipments 24/7, and can take proactive steps to intervene should any cargo start to experience temperature excursions, delays, equipment malfunction or damage on the ground.


On 19 February 2021, Flight CX391 from Beijing, carried the first batch of the Sinovac vaccines from Beijing to Hong Kong as part of the Hong Kong SAR Government’s vaccination programme.

Augustus Tang, Chief Executive Officer of Cathay Pacific said, “This is an important milestone in Hong Kong’s fight against COVID-19 and we are immensely proud to be doing our part in this fight. It is a successful effort, which involves close collaboration with the Airport Authority of Hong Kong, and many of our industry partners and business associates.”

The one million doses of Sinovac COVID-19 vaccines were loaded inside six temperature-controlled Envirotainer e2 RAP containers to maintain the vaccine temperature range of 2-8 degrees centigrade. The shipments were loaded closest to the aircraft doors to allow for priority unloading and upon arrival the aircraft was parked at the South Apron closest to the Cathay Pacific Cargo Terminal at Hong Kong International Airport to reduce the towing time between the parking bay and the cargo terminal.


In order for the aviation industry to ensure a safe, secure, compliant and efficient transportation of all pharmaceutical products, IATA has established a globally consistent and recognized pharmaceutical product handling certification called Center of Excellence for Independent Validators in Pharmaceutical Logistics (CEIV Pharma).

The vaccine roll out relies on air transport for its speed, consistency and efficiency in delivering high-value, time-sensitive, temperature-controlled products.

However, aviation industry stakeholders must overcome big challenges, such as insufficient expertise, inadequate infrastructure, ill-equipped facilities, and increased regulations, as they strive to provide the high-quality services pharmaceutical shippers expect.

CEIV Pharma ensures that facilities, equipment, operations and staff comply with all applicable standards, regulations and guidelines expected from pharmaceutical manufacturers.

The overall goal is to elevate the industry know-how and achieve global standardisation.

Source: IATA


Vaccines need to be stored at cold temperatures from between -80°C and 2°C and dry ice has been found to provide the best long-term solution for storage and transportation. Dry ice is the solid form of carbon dioxide (CO2), and is commonly used in research areas to allow for rapid cooling of materials. As dry ice warms, it sublimates (passes directly into a gas without becoming a liquid) at -78.5°C. This quick shift to a gas state can pose worker safety hazards, including frostbite and asphyxiation from high levels of CO2, and these hazards should not be taken lightly suggested by Bob Fawley, Senior Customer Marketing Specialist for Honeywell’s Gas Analysis and Safety business.

This challenge has also been addressed by airliners as there are operational limits on how much dry ice can be uplifted, Alex Leung, Cargo Products Manager for Cathay Pacific Cargo told Cargo Clan.

“Dry ice generates carbon dioxide as it sublimates, and although it’s inert, it ticks some dangerous goods boxes, especially on aircraft carrying passengers. But the less dry ice that is carried to maintain low temperatures, the fewer specialist cooltainers that can be uplifted. That’s a problem as both quantity and quality matter.”


Because of the temperature sensitive nature of the vaccines and their relatively short shelf life, having an effective track and trace system is critical. Track and trace ensures that healthcare workers know when the vaccines are arriving and they can then schedule appointments accordingly. Any damage or theft to the shipment will also be monitored and logged.

From a logistics perspective, supply chain managers can access data from tags on each vaccine batch to provide a comprehensive view of volumes stored, delivered and not used. Stock can also be identified according to the manufacturer and expiry date, according to the KPMG report.

Data analytics will drive the success of the vaccine roll out and a robust and established process is required for capturing, storing, processing and transferring data. Standardising the asset data, agreeing on classification of each vaccine and sharing commercial data.


The supply chain is adapting to the new normal of distributing billions of vaccines to the whole of humanity, initially at warp speed using air freight to deliver urgently needed protection to people across the world. It is apparent that the long-term plan to deliver COVID-19 vaccines on an annual basis will require a more sustainable and cost-effective program which will rely heavily on container shipping.

Shipping has for many years been attracting more pharmaceutical shipments, traditionally carried by airfreight. The infrastructure to support the transportation, handling, storage of vaccines is in place in most parts of the world as logistics companies, container shipping lines and ports have invested in developing this fast-growing sector.

There will be a need to look at the legal, risk management and insurance aspects all parties involved in moving the vaccines by sea, but those issues will be secondary to the urgency and importance of delivering the vaccine to the world.