Mavroudis Global Transportation & Logistics

What we know about Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine distribution plan

November 13, 2020

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The company confirmed "there are no other main logistics supply chain partners beyond" DHL, FedEx and UPS that are working on distribution plans in the U.S. "We will be utilizing road and air modes of transportation via our main carrier partners in the U.S. where we expect to be able to get product to points of use (POU) within a day or two," according to the spokesperson.

The company plans to manufacture up to 50 million vaccine doses in 2020 and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021, the spokesperson said. The coronavirus vaccine candidate developed by Pfizer and BioNTech was more than 90% effective at preventing COVID-19 compared to a placebo.

Dive Insight:

Pfizer is gearing up to quickly distribute the coronavirus vaccine once the Food and Drug Administration grants emergency approval.

Vaccine distribution will be limited at first. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla gave the example last month that if the company is able to produce 30 million doses in 2020, that's only enough for 15 million people.

"Which is a very small part of the population," Bourla said on the company's earning's call. "So it's not going to be massively available. It's going to be targeted in its availability. As we move into the first months of 2021 then we are going to have much more massive distribution of the vaccine around the world."

The manufacturer's most recent projections estimate the ability to produce 50 million vaccine doses this year.

Pfizer said it will work with the U.S. government on determining where the vaccines will be distributed first. It said it's currently focused on hospitals, outpatient clinics, community vaccination locations and pharmacies, but added that vaccination points "will vary."

The federal government chose McKesson to lead distribution of the vaccine as part of Operation Warp Speed, but Pfizer has decided not to work through McKesson for its distribution. Instead, Pfizer describes its model as a "flexible just in time system which will ship the frozen vials directly from our plants to the point of vaccination" and said it is still working closely with the government on distribution plans.

DHL said in a report on vaccine distribution that there are three potential models for distribution. The direct shipment model Pfizer is using is described as the fastest method, and the logistics company said it would likely make sense for initial distribution or in cases where the final destination is close to the manufacturing facility.

The reason for avoiding the distributor is the vaccine's strict cold chain requirements, Pfizer said.

This summer, UPS Healthcare President Wes Wheeler named three main temperature ranges in the world of cold storage:

  1. 2-8 degrees Celsius.
  2. Minus 20 degrees Celsius.
  3. Minus 80 degrees Celsius.

The first two ranges can be handled with special packaging that can maintain that temperature for 96 hours outside of a refrigerated location. But once it gets down to minus 80 degrees Celsius, dry ice is required to keep the shipment cold.

Pfizer's and BioNTech's vaccine falls into the range that requires dry ice and has even led one federal immunization panel to say the requirements could limit its distribution. Avoiding a distributor like McKesson takes a link out of the supply chain where potential temperature diversions could occur. And to help with the distribution, Pfizer has designed a box to manage the temperature. The "temperature-controlled shippers" use dry ice to maintain a storage temperature of minus 70 degrees Celsius (plus or minus 10 degrees Celsius) for up to 10 days.

"The intent is to utilize Pfizer-strategic transportation partners to ship by air to major hubs within a country/region and by ground transport to dosing locations," the spokesperson wrote.

The boxes will be outfitted with a GPS tracker that will allow the company to track the shipments from a control tower where the company will work to ensure shipments don't experience temperature diversions. The box can then be refilled with dry ice at the dosing location to keep the vaccine at the correct temperature for storage.

"With pharma executives reporting typical spoilage rates for other vaccines during transport at 5% to as much as 20% because of inadequate temperature control, getting cold storage shipping control just right is critical to the expansion of availability," Glenn Richey, the chair of the supply chain management department at Auburn University, said in a statement.

It's not just distribution Pfizer has to focus on as it gets vaccines out to the global population. It also has to ensure a steady supply of raw materials and ensure enough space in manufacturing facilities to produce the planned number of doses.

Bourla said last month the company has been working since the beginning of the pandemic to "rapidly build up [manufacturing] capacity."

"We have worked closely with our suppliers as we ramped up production of a potential COVID-19 vaccine," the company spokesperson said. "At this time, we do not anticipate supply concerns for vaccine components, although of course a disruption of the supply environment is always possible during a pandemic."

DHL, FedEx and UPS have spoken publicly about working on vaccine distribution but have largely avoided talking about the companies they're working with, even though Pfizer has confirmed the logistics companies are part of the distribution team.

UPS is working to build out a freezer farm in Louisville, Kentucky, that will help with the distribution of the vaccines, according to Bloomberg. FedEx has highlighted its airplane fleet of 600 and 90 cold storage facilities around the world.

Logistics companies have voiced confidence in their ability to handle distribution of the vaccine, but Richey underscored that it will put a strain on the country's supply chain infrastructure, specifically highlighting a shortage of reefer transportation in the trucking market resulting from existing high demand to transport produce and other foods.

There is "still time to act," Richey said. "But it will likely take an all-hands-on-deck, tightly coordinated effort by federal, state and local government working hand in hand with private industry to pull it off."

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