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Drugmakers Discuss Logistics Of Distributing Coronavirus Vaccine Worldwide


Coordinating hundreds of airplanes and finding ships that can keep cargo really cold are just a couple of items on the to-do list for worldwide coronavirus vaccine distribution. NPR's Jackie Northam reports on what transporting billions of doses, once they're ready, will take.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: When it comes to an exercise in logistics, distributing vials of COVID-19 vaccine to every corner of the world is in a league of its own.

ROBIN TOWNLEY: What will happen in the logistics industry over the next 18 months is roughly equivalent to the largest product launch in the history of humankind.

NORTHAM: Robin Townley is the head of special projects at the shipping giant A.P. Moller-Maersk. He says the sheer scale of the vaccine distribution operation is staggering.

TOWNLEY: The number of doses that need to be administered or delivered to the global population according to WHO is about 10 billion. If you think about that in terms of, say, technology that everybody's familiar with, how would you like to try to put two iPhones in the hand of every single human being on the planet inside of 18 months?

NORTHAM: Maersk is one of several logistics and shipping companies preparing for the distribution onslaught. That requires creating a supply chain, everything from transportation, cold storage to preserve the vaccine, getting permits from governments and directing it to local health care workers from Africa to the Arctic.

Prashant Yadav is a supply chain specialist with the Center for Global Development. He says one complicating factor is it's not clear what company or country will develop the first vaccine.

PRASHANT YADAV: Supply chains are used to working with some uncertainty in demand and some uncertainty in supply. But not knowing what will be the point of manufacture and what will be the type of product is an unusual type of uncertainty for a supply chain to deal with.

NORTHAM: And then there's geopolitics, says Maersk's Townley.

TOWNLEY: So say one major manufacturer gets approval in the United States but hasn't yet gotten approval in Brazil, that by itself changes the way that the entire rollout works.

NORTHAM: Some vaccines have stringent guidelines. One being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech must be stored around minus-100 degrees Fahrenheit. Larry St. Onge, the president of life sciences and health care for DHL globally, says that creates a dilemma in some parts of the world.

LARRY ST ONGE: Particularly if you look at the Middle East and Africa and, you know, Latin America and parts of Asia, there is a lack of infrastructure. You know, how long can it be on the tarmac before you start to escalate to the airline to make sure it's being moved into an environment where it's in a more controlled temperature?

NORTHAM: Moving the vaccines around the world will take hundreds of planes. Logistics companies like DHL have their own fleets. But Matthew Leonard with the trade publication Supply Chain Dive says they'll have to rely on space in commercial passenger aircraft as well. But a lot of planes have been grounded because of the pandemic.

MATTHEW LEONARD: About half of the global air freight market travels on the belly of passenger planes. So with those out of the market, it's going to be hard to find space on the remaining air freight capacity for these vaccines to move.

NORTHAM: Some vaccines could be shipped by sea, which is slower and cheaper. But Townley says at the moment, the technology to ship the ultra-cold vaccines by sea on a large scale doesn't exist. Townley worries there's not enough joint planning or an overarching authority to help address the complicated distribution of vaccines.

TOWNLEY: There are many different stakeholders who are doing it in parts and pieces, but certainly not one kind of ringmaster, for lack of a better word. And that's just because the role doesn't exist.

NORTHAM: For now, it's not even clear where the vaccine's journey around the world will start - or when. Jackie Northam, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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