Following the global rollout and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines half a year ago, Pharma.Aero asked its members about the experiences gained so far in the process concerning the handling, distribution, transportation, and efficiency of operations. The results of the survey are encouraging, Frank von Gelder, the organization’s Secretary General, sums up. They provide a solid basis for the further optimization of the supply chain because the production, transport, and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines will continue.
CFG: Frank, what are the key findings of your survey on the performance of the cargo industry in the COVID-19 vaccine distribution. Kindly summarize.
FvG: Despite a long list of unknowns and very limited time to prepare and set up the global COVID-19 vaccine supply chain and cold chain requirements that we witnessed back in 2020, the air cargo industry has risen to the challenge and has generally performed well during the initial global roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccines. Through open communication and strong collaboration across the air cargo supply chain and between the private and public sectors, the industry has gained the trust of vaccines manufacturers to handle and transport the vaccine shipments in a safe, reliable, and secured manner.
CFG: How representative is the survey? In other words, what is the data basis for the findings obtained?
FvG: Following Project Sunrays, a joint initiative with TIACA, we felt the need for continuous and open sharing. As such, we decided to engage with our members on the measures undertaken, their hands-on experience, and lessons learned from the initial handling and transportation of the COVID-19 vaccines during the last 6 months. Two sets of questionnaires were rolled out to our pharma shippers and the rest of our members respectively in March 2021. Beside the surveys, we conducted one-to-one interviews to dive deep on specific elements. 17 of our members and 5 pharma shippers contributed to this project.
CFG: Did the survey identify any weak spots within the COVID-19 supply chain that need to be overcome in the weeks and months ahead?
FvG: With reference to Project Sunrays, attention was paid to the four key criteria in handling and transporting the COVID-19 vaccine shipments: Speed, Reliability, Security, and Transparency. When we surveyed our Pharma Shippers members including a few with approved COVID-19 vaccines, most of their vaccine shipments were accorded priority treatment and fast transit times. We have not heard of shipments being damaged during the air transportation process. Notwithstanding the above, it was indicated to us that there is still room for improvement in enhancing shipment visibility. Visibility of shipments is often reduced once they leave the production facility.
An area that was not addressed in the project is the last mile distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, and delivering the shipments to remote or less-resourced regions, which is still a major concern in itself.
CFG: Regarding transparency issues: The study reveals that some airlines require pre-shipment information to enable their ground handlers to plan proactively. However, other carriers do not deliver advanced product information to their agents. How can Pharma.Aero motivate the hesitant to improve the flow of data to safeguard product quality?
FvG: Pharma.Aero is a strong advocate for industry collaborative data-sharing to enhance pharma shipment visibility across the air cargo supply chain. There is also a strong push by global pharmaceutical companies for better visibility. The ability to standardize, collect, and leverage data across the multiple participants in a pharma supply chain would not only increase the visibility and traceability throughout the supply chain, but also produce greater insights on the reliability and performance of a transportation lane, as well as to identify and effectively address potential gaps within the supply chain.
To this end, we have worked with our partners to create a prototype and publish a white paper.
CFG: It seems that the COVID-19 pandemic has put the global spotlight on the pharma business. Which opportunities result from this gain in importance for your organization and the pharma supply chain in general?
FvG: The air cargo industry plays an instrumental role during the COVID-19 pandemic by transporting life-saving and essential medical supplies such as PPEs, test kits, medicines, etc. around the world. When the COVID-19 vaccine forerunners entered into the later stages of the clinical trials, attention was shifted to the air cargo industry to deliver the vaccine shipments globally in the highest form of speed, reliability, security, and transparency.
Pharma.Aero lives up to our mission by contributing and playing an important part to the humanitarian mission through fostering cooperation between the pharmaceutical and the air cargo industry, and strengthening collaboration between air cargo communities, as well as across the air cargo supply chain through initiatives such as this current project, Sunrays, and recently published VACScene newsletters.
CFG: The pandemic is not over, and vaccination campaigns will continue. Does this entail additional tasks and new challenges for your organization?
FvG: Pharma.Aero's DNA is to achieve excellence in reliable end-to-end air transportation for pharmaceuticals through industry and community collaboration. To this end, and in
relation to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there is still much to be done. This also opens up new projects and areas for collaboration.
Pharma.Aero has recently embarked on 2 other projects in continuation of what has been done on COVID-19 vaccines global distribution. Together with our strategic airport member, Montevideo Free Airport in Uruguay, strategic pharma shipper, BioNTech/Pfizer, and associate partner, va-Q-tec, we are conceptualizing a lean logistics model to deliver the vaccines from “airport-to-patient” directly. This model will help to shorten supply chains and achieve higher efficiency. In addition to the above project, together with our members, Astral Aviation, and our new industry partner, Humanitarian Logistics Association, we are examining the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) as an integral part of the airfreight pharma supply chain and in the last mile delivery of vaccines in remote areas.
CFG: Frank, thank you for this input.
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