Meeting the challenge to deliver COVID-19 relief around the world

17 March 2021

FiercePharma

Each challenge COVID-19 has presented in the past year has seemed insurmountable yet at every step those obstacles have been overcome, particularly in the pharmaceutical industry tasked with developing vaccines and therapies to combat this crisis.

The industry moved at an almost breakneck speed to develop effective treatments and vaccines in months instead of years. Now, as countries worldwide have authorized the use of several COVID-19 vaccines, government agencies, pharmaceutical manufacturers and supply chain partners face an unprecedented challenge—helping get those vaccines into the arms of billions of people around the globe.

The formidable task is made even more challenging given some of the vaccines require ultra-frozen storage conditions from production through transportation and to their final destination, inoculation sites. If addressing the pandemic wasn’t enough, the global pharmaceutical supply chain had to maintain the normal flow of everyday treatments and supplies from oncology therapies to heart medication.

“If there was ever a moment that has proven the resilience of the pharmaceutical supply chain, it is now,” said Heather Zenk, Senior Vice President for Strategic Global Sourcing at AmerisourceBergen.

Expanding Access in the United States

Delivering COVID-19 vaccines worldwide requires a coordinated ballet of supply chain partners and stakeholders ranging from airport handlers, ground transportation crews and security officials who must coordinate with, depending on the country, local, state, provincial and government law enforcement agencies. All of that amidst a backdrop of ongoing lockdowns and transport restrictions.

In early March, shortly after the FDA authorized a third COVID-19 vaccine, President Joe Biden announced he expects to have sufficient supply to inoculate all adults by the end of May—two months earlier than anticipated. Through mid-March, more than 33 million Americans have been fully vaccinated, equating to 13 percent of U.S. adults

Officials anticipate both vaccine supply, and the number of healthcare sites inoculating people will drastically increase in the coming weeks. The number of sites administering vaccines has rapidly climbed since the launch of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program in early February, which expanded access to 21 pharmacy chains and independent community pharmacy networks, including AmerisourceBergen’s Good Neighbor Pharmacy Network. To date, AmerisourceBergen has ordered more than 100,000 doses on behalf of nearly 200 GNP pharmacies across Texas, Kentucky, Kansas and Nebraska.

AmerisourceBergen, which ships pharmaceutical products to tens of thousands of sites of care nationwide each day, has worked closely with the U.S. government and pharmaceutical manufacturers to support the distribution of every COVID-19 therapy that has received emergency use authorization, Zenk said. As both vaccine supply and vaccination points increase, creating a logistical turning point, AmerisourceBergen is prepared to provide support as needed.

“Our goal is to do whatever we can to contribute to the country’s critical need to take control of the pandemic,” Zenk said.

Delivering COVID-19 Vaccines Across the Globe: From Canada to Norway

Innomar Strategies, a part of AmerisourceBergen, reached an agreement with the Government of Canada in early December to support the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the country. Innomar—which is working in partnership with FedEx Express Canada—is providing importation and third-party logistics services, including storage of the temperature-sensitive products in its GMP-compliant distribution center in Ontario. Once the products arrive to Innomar’s facility, teams move the vaccines into the temperature-controlled units, perform the required quality assurance (QA) services, and then repackage the vaccines in cold-chain packaging solutions that are equipped with monitoring devices—all within 24 to 48 hours.

“Our teams are operating at a very high-level to support the safe and efficient distribution of COVID-19 vaccines as soon as they become available,” Innomar’s president Guy Payette said.

To prepare for deliveries across Canada’s vast geography, Innomar and FedEx carried out several dry runs in mid-December, sending empty boxes to the manufacturer’s factory in Europe and tracking its journey back to Canada, all the way to remote communities in the Northwest Territories. Following the practice runs, teams added a second GPS tracker to build in redundancies and maintain product visibility—no matter the elevation or temperature.   

“Since the first doses arrived in late December, the storage and delivery mechanisms have gone really well,” Payette said. “It’s been all hands-on deck given the scale and scope of this effort. But we are prepared for this moment—it’s what we do every day. As the vaccine supply increases in the coming months, we will continue to provide the support needed to ensure residents in all corners of Canada have access to a vaccine.”

Thousands of miles away, across the Atlantic Ocean, World Courier—AmerisourceBergen’s global specialty logistics business—is supporting vaccine distribution efforts at various points on the globe, from South Africa to Germany, Finland, Sweden and Norway. The company is also playing a vital role in transporting active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and semi-finished products across the world, as well as the manufacturing samples for safety testing prior to vaccine batches being released.

Successful vaccine rollout efforts require an in-depth understanding of each country’s regulatory requirements and collaboration with government partners, as well as the expertise and capabilities to overcome logistical challenges like limited cold-chain infrastructure or deliveries to remote locations.

“With a global network that spans more than 50 countries—including a presence in Africa, Europe, Asia and Latin America—we’re able to combine local in-market expertise with a suite of temperature-control solutions to safely deliver products across the world, on time and in the right condition,” said Rafael Teixeira, president of World Courier and ICS, AmerisourceBergen’s third-party logistics (3PL) provider.

In Norway, World Courier, in collaboration with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, distributes 500 to 600 shipments of vaccine doses to more than 350 sites each week. With the average temperature plunging to -7 degrees Celsius during the winter months, teams use an innovative container, called PharmaCube, to maintain the specified temperature range and protect the integrity of the product, said Jens Mattuschka, World Courier’s regional vice president of the Nordics, Central and Eastern Europe.

As with any shipment of time- or temperature-sensitive pharmaceutical products, unforeseen factors—that aren’t dealt with successfully—can cause delays and may jeopardize the product’s viability. When a severe storm hit Norway this winter, local crews cancelled the daily ferry out to remote islands. To ensure a village of about 450 people received timely access to a vaccine, World Courier associates chartered a shuttle-boat with a local skipper, ultimately delivering the vaccine doses on the same day.

“Whether it’s our teams on the ground in Norway, our staff manning the control tower in Lithuania or associates in our new Johannesburg depot, the entire World Courier team is hyper-focused on providing the logistics support needed to maximize patient access to COVID-19 vaccines in communities around the world,” Teixeira said.

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