The vaccine logistics mission will be very challenging, expensive and labour intensive. As the cool chain logistics market in the continent is highly characterised as poorly developed, the logistical challenge will be like never experienced before. Therefore, the stakeholders are finding partnerships to accelerate distribution, investing in the right cold chain infrastructure and riding the wave of change with digitalisation.

February 1 was a historical moment for Africa when Emirates SkyCargo’s B777-300ER touched the land with 1 million Covid-19 vaccines in Johannesburg. The vaccines sent from Serum Institute of India were the first-ever shipment arrived at OR Tambo International Airport. In the following weeks, Brussels Airlines, Air France KLM Martinair Cargo, Turkish Cargo, Qatar Airways, facilitated more shipments to other parts of Africa.

Recognising the scale of the response that would be required to coordinate the logistics of global Covid-19 vaccine distribution, Emirates SkyCargo set up the world’s largest hub for cold chain storage and distribution of the vaccine at its GDP-certified cargo terminal in Dubai World Central. Having over 4,000 square metres of temperature-controlled pharma storage area, it is estimated that Emirates SkyCentral DWC can hold around 10 million vials of vaccine at a 2-8 degree Celsius temperature range at any point of time.

“The Dubai hub will allow us to fly in vaccines from manufacturing sites globally, store and prepare shipments for regional and global distribution. Combined with our pharma facility at Dubai International Airport, we have potentially over 20,000 square metres of handling space that can be used for Covid-19 vaccines at Dubai,” observes Julian Sutch, manager, global pharma sales, Emirates SkyCargo.

Swissport is the first globally operating air cargo handler to receive the CEIV Pharma certification for its Nairobi facility in Africa in 2020. The temperature-controlled area accounts for 13 percent of the total warehouse space of 10,400 square metres. The dedicated pharma rooms have temperature ranges of +15 to +25 degrees Celsius as well as +2 to +8 degrees Celsius. Additionally, there is a special cooling unit for goods that require a temperature range of -20 to -10 degrees Celsius.

Chris Goodsir, country manager, Swissport Ghana, states, “At our facility in Accra, we have invested in a pharmaceutical fridge, dedicated to a temperature range of +15 - +25 degrees Celsius. This fridge is 137 square metres and in 2020 we handled a total of 632 tonnes of cargo in this temperature range. There is also a 55 square metres cold room set to a temperature range of +2 - +8 degrees Celsius. In 2020, a total of 706 tonnes of cargo was held in this fridge. We are considering the possibility of investing in another fridge in the warehouse. This fridge would be for the handling of Covid-19 vaccines. With the SOPs in place, based on IATA requirements, we are handling the consignments with the utmost care and dedication to maintain their respective temperature ranges."

CACC Cargolinx was the first terminal in Africa and second in the Middle East to be awarded the IATA CEIV Pharma Ground Handling Agent in 2017. It was recertified in January 2021. Its cargo terminals consist of 9,000 square metres of the temperature-controlled area covering both import and export with 10 custom-built cool dollies.

We can distribute Covid-19 vaccines in smaller shipments to Africa, reducing the need for large scale short term investments in cold chain facilities for storing it.

Julian Sutch, Emirates SkyCargo

“Vaccines are highly sensitive to any temperature variations, as any minor deviation may harm their efficacy. With the above-mentioned capabilities and the team's readiness before any vaccine shipments' arrival, CACC Cargolinx would have the cool dollies ready on the tarmac with the required temperature range to receive all types of vaccines. Vaccines would then be transported from the tarmac to the appropriate temperature-controlled chambers or freezers until they are safely released to the customer. Furthermore, the CACC team has received the IATA 'Transport of Pharma Products and Vaccines by Air’ certification in February to further ensure that all their efforts do comply with the continuously increasing pharmaceutical handling demands., says Sally Onsi, business development manager, CACC Cargolinx.

Ethiopian Cargo Pharma Wing is equipped with three climate chambers ranging from -25 degree Celsius to +25 degree Celsius dedicated to temperature-sensitive healthcare products. This 54,000 square metres facility is capable of storing more than 1.45 million kilogrammes of temperature-controlled cargo at a time. In addition to this, Pharma Wing deploys dedicated cool dollies for TARMAC transport, complete motion sensor-based CCTV, real-time temperature and humidity monitoring system.

Fitsum Abadi, managing director, Ethiopian Cargo & Logistics Services, states, “Ethiopian offers two air cargo logistics solution to suit the needs and demands of the customers i.e. point-to-point transport and hub and spoke, where the shipment will be transported through Addis Ababa for further processing. Through both, the offering’s we always make sure that the temperature integrity of the product is not compromised. In areas where there is no sufficient cool chain infrastructure at the airport, we arrange necessary measures with local authorities at the destination to enable us to deliver the shipments immediately upon arrival.”

More than 9,000 specialists work across DHL’s dedicated global network so that pharmaceutical, medical devices, clinical trials and research organisations, wholesalers and distributors, as well as hospitals and healthcare providers, are connected across the value chain and through digitalisation, from clinical trials to point of care, and every step in between. DHL Air Thermonet and Ocean Thermomet solutions offer a standardised approach in air and ocean freight, respectively, to enable proactive shipment monitoring and intervention, providing a high level of visibility of the customer’s product movement throughout the supply chain.

Pramod Bagalwadi, CEO, DHL Global Forwarding Sub-Saharan Africa, says, “Transporting any temperature-controlled product requires knowledge of the minute details such as packaging, storing, air and land routing, timing, carrier selection, specific handling requirements etc. Additionally, to move some pharmaceutical shipments that are packed with dry ice for temperature control, highly detailed planning from customs and regulatory approvals to handling and storing processes is needed to maintain temperature integrity throughout. Temperature trackers equipped with sophisticated GPS are packed to provide full visibility throughout the shipment’s entire journey. On arrival, these shipments are also accorded top priority for customs clearance. Our customers can also gain full visibility of their shipments throughout, via myDHLi, a one-stop portal for them to track and trace their shipments 24x7.”

In 2016, Emirates Pharma, a specialised transportation product for pharmaceuticals was launched. Emirates Pharma has three levels of innovative transport solutions based on a requirement mix that includes the temperature sensitivity of the product, the packing solution used by the pharmaceutical manufacturer and the origin and destination of the shipment.

Sutch notes, “In terms of traceability, our operations conform to GDP norms with adequate controls for the prevention of tampering or contamination of shipments. We also have our Cargo Operations Control Centre (COCC) that monitors the progress of the cargo we transport from origin to destination against pre-agreed milestones with our customers applying the Cargo iQ quality management system that includes an electronic status exchange with our customers. The COCC takes corrective and preventative action in case there are any delays.”

CACC Cargolinx terminals at Cairo International Airport awarded ‘Envirotainer Ground Services Award’ for handling life science products include inspection areas that are thermally mapped and equipped with temperature loggers and an adequate number of active container plugs.

“CACC Cargolinx is currently developing a digital customer portal to be launched within a few months. The portal would mainly benefit the end customers to enable them to track their consignment stored at CACC Cargolinx’ terminal and would allow them to request customs support, reports, CCTV footages, consultancy meetings, etc,” comments Onsi.

Last year, Swissport’s Ghana and Liege have been chosen as the logistics hubs by WFP and WHO for pharma shipments. In 2020, the company handled a total of 632 tonnes of pharmaceutical cargo overall including WHO shipments.

Goodsir says, “We have a cargo customer portal, where you can track the shipment from origin to destination. If the shipment passes a Swissport station, you would also be able to track the Cargo iQ milestones. This shows you the timestamps from acceptance to delivery.”

Ethiopian Airlines’ partnership with Cainiao Smart Logistics Network, the logistics arms of Alibaba Group Holding, is to launch special cold chain air freight for the transportation of temperature-controlled medicines from Shenzhen Airport - China's first medical cross-border cold chain facility to Africa, and the rest of the world via Dubai and Addis Ababa. Besides, Ethiopian is in discussions with different parties in the supply chain for the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines.

“To support customers need for visibility, Ethiopian prepared a simplified approval process where customers are required to secure approval only once for the data logger they have planned to use for the transportation of time and temperature-sensitive healthcare products. In line with this, Ethiopian already provided 32 approval for the use of the most commonly used data loggers in its fleet network,” Abadi concludes.

While discussing digitalisation, trends in technology that cannot be ignored are the usage of drones. Last week, Zipline, UPS Foundation and the government of Ghana, entered into a deal to distribute up to 2.5 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines to vaccination sites in the coming weeks and months. With this new partnership, Zipline drones will parachute insulated packages containing doses of Covid-19 vaccine quickly, safely and precisely down to health facilities across Ghana.

DHL executed drone projects with Wingcopter to deliver blood plasma to Tanzania a couple of years ago. Speaking on whether it will reinvent drone deliveries during this crisis period, Bagalwadi, notes, “That was a successful pilot project but the cost and limitations of using drones make it a very niche option and there are regulations that we have to work within. Committed to our mission to connect people and improve lives, as well as depending on the type of shipment we have to handle, we are ready and flexible enough to deploy the required technology, innovative solutions and multimodal options to complete the task.”

Emirates SkyCargo is no stranger to transporting temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals. The state-of-the-art infrastructure at DWC is complemented by one of the world’s largest fleet of cool dollies helping protect temperature-sensitive cargo during transit between the aircraft and cargo terminal. In addition to cold storage, Emirates SkyCargo also offers dedicated zones for value-added services such as re-icing and repackaging of vaccines for global distribution for its customers. The carrier has joined Dubai Vaccine Logistics Alliance to expedite the global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, which has other members like DP World, Dubai Airports, and International Humanitarian City.

“We have only started with the process of distributing vaccines to developing nations and we have so far transported vaccines to several countries in Africa including Egypt, Ghana, and South Africa. Through the Dubai Vaccine Logistics Alliance and our partnership with UNICEF, we look forward to ramping up our vaccine distribution in Africa and help communities get back on their feet. From our hub, we can fly vaccines from manufacturing locations in large quantities and then distribute them in smaller shipments to destinations in Africa. This will also reduce the need for large scale short term investments in cold chain facilities for storing Covid-19 vaccines,” Sutch adds.

CACC Cargolinx has already received about five trial shipments and is ready to handle more shipments. The company signed agreements with Turkish Cargo for pharma shipments. Qatar Airways stopped operations to Cairo because of the ban but returned and resumed its operations under the old contract at the CACC Cargolinx terminal in January 2021. Onsi adds, “Since Turkish Cargo is not a contracted carrier, it has been suffering from the limited capabilities offered by the local market (in Cairo) leading to deviated storage temperature and undesired results. Accordingly, the Turkish Cargo team has reached out to CACC Cargolinx, so we are currently running a trial phase to handle specific pharma shipments through units only and we will see how it goes. Currently, we are studying various opportunities to open new terminals across the Middle East and Africa, but to date, no destination has been confirmed.”

We are considering the possibility of investing in another fridge in the warehouse, which will be for Covid-19 vaccines.

Chris Goodsir, Swissport Ghana

For DHL, the digitalisation journey has started years ago and in the last twelve months, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the extent of technological adoption globally and in Africa. Given how young the population is in Africa, and how African businesses are increasingly reaching world markets, it anticipates that digitalisation will continue to be a priority. Its myDHLi platform launched last year enables customers to manage shipment transport modes (air and ocean), freight rates, carbon emissions and shipment data, as well as download analyses and reports. Specific for road freight which is an essential offering in most landlocked Africa, the company rolled out Saloodo!, our digital freight platform across the continent.

Bagalwadi says, “We have been moving temperature-controlled pharmaceutical shipments not just in Africa but globally, amassing vast and deep expertise in this highly specialised sector. We have a specialised team based out of the International Humanitarian Center in Dubai who coordinates the movement of aid relief to disaster-stricken countries and pharmaceutical products for tropical diseases in Africa.”

Apart from the existing infrastructure and the considerations regarding adding more temperature-controlled space for activities in Accra, Swissport is in continuous discussions with the local agents regarding the handling of vaccines. “Swissport has the relevant SOP in place for vaccine handling, which is in line with the requirements set out by IATA. As mentioned, we have the necessary capabilities to handle the relevant temperature ranges. We also have another cold room located in our export department which is 131 square metres and can accommodate large quantities of vaccines if required. Air Ghana Perishable Centre (AGPC) managed by us was designed for the handling of perishable cargo departing from Ghana. Inside this warehouse is another 165 square metres fridge, which could also be considered for storage space. All our fridges are equipped with temperature loggers and automatic alerts. The temperatures of the fridges are recorded every 10 minutes and stored in a cloud-based system, concludes Goodsir.

The Covid-19 vaccine distribution is not easy, it is going to be very challenging, expensive and labour intensive thus calling it a ‘mission of the century’. For the stakeholders in Africa, as the cool chain logistics market in the continent is highly characterised as poorly developed, the challenge will be like never experienced before.

Read Full Article