COVID Vaccine Rollout Is Still Impacting Pharma Transportation

Boxes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are loaded into a truck for shipping. (Paul Sancya/Associated Press)

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The pharmaceutical industry and its transportation partners remain busy with the distribution of coronavirus vaccines.

“FedEx continues to deliver COVID-19 vaccines on behalf of our health care customers and governments,” the company said. “We carefully planned and prepared to handle the transportation of these critical vaccines and ingredients in our FedEx Express integrated air and ground network.”

FedEx has delivered about half of the more than 478 million vaccines distributed by the federal government to all 50 states and territories. It also carries active pharmaceutical ingredients and therapeutics that help fight against the coronavirus.

Likewise, DHL Supply Chain has helped deliver COVID-19 vaccinations, totaling more than 1 billion doses to 160 countries.

“Volume peaked for dosage orders in August 2021, but we continue to work with our pharma partner in anticipation of shipping booster shots and vaccines for young children,” Jim Monkmeyer, president of transportation at DHL Supply Chain, told Transport Topics.

UPS Inc. data shows the growth rate for pharma-related shipments globally has been around 1.8% for the industry throughout the year. UPS Healthcare experienced year-over-year growth for both general pharmaceutical and bio-pharma shipments at 12.3% and 17.5%, respectively, in the United States.

“Over the last year, the transportation and health care markets saw a rise in shipments across the globe, but as the pandemic fueled and accelerated this rise, UPS Healthcare saw a shipment spike,” said Dan Gagnon, vice president of global marketing and strategy at UPS Healthcare.

Gagnon said recent factors that are likely contributing to the elevated pace include the planned vaccine mandate for companies with more than 100 employees, as well as the booster shots.

Volume of pharma-specific shipments has remained high throughout the year, he added, but has flattened slightly as 2021 has progressed as a result of catching up to the large-volume shipments it saw in the second half of 2020.

Rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine remains strong, a spokesperson for vaccine manufacturer Pfizer said. “In just nine months, Pfizer and BioNTech have shipped and delivered more than 1.6 billion doses of its COVID-19 vaccine to more than 130 countries in every region of the world.”

FourKites Inc., which provides tracking and supply chain solutions, reports in the past six months a 40% increase in tracked shipments for its pharma customers, a 20% increase in carriers serving pharma customers and a nearly 50% increase in total miles traveled by pharma customers.

“We see volumes increasing and staying at an increased number, in part because of just the way the overall demand is in the market,” said Glenn Koepke, senior vice president of customer success at FourKites.

“The industry obviously has higher margins and so there are some strategies that can minimize the disruptions more so than other industries,” Koepke said.


A UPS driver scans a COVID test kit for shipment. (UPS Healthcare)

The Healthcare Distribution Alliance (HDA) is a national organization representing primary pharmaceutical distributors helping to streamline supply chain processes between manufacturers, health care providers, pharmacies and distributors.

“I wouldn’t say there is too terribly much of a change other than the added distribution of the vaccines themselves,” Chuck Forsaith, vice president of the HDA’s Pharmaceutical Cargo Security Coalition, told TT. “But as far as the traditional ways that drugs move it hasn’t been any higher this year. It hasn’t been any lower. It’s been fairly consistent.”

He saw a slight uptick with the vaccine but it was more so marginal. Part of that had to do with the pharmaceutical supply chain already being large and built to rapidly adapt to changes.

“The vaccines themselves just added a different wrinkle to what was going on,” Forsaith said. “That wrinkle was the fact that the vaccines had to be distributed expeditiously, at least initially. So, it added a little bit more of a burden to that distribution type metrics. But it wasn’t anything that the industry couldn’t handle.”

Forsaith added another wrinkle was that some of the vaccines had to be shipped in an extra cold environment which took some adjustments.

“It took a while to be able to see how that integration was going to take place so that the rest of the pharmaceutical supply chain wouldn’t necessarily be affected,” Forsaith said. “It isn’t completely back to normal now. But it’s a lot closer now.”

UPS Inc. ranks No. 1 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America. FedEx Corp. ranks No. 2 on the TT top 100 list of for-hire carriers.

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