The Greatest Logistical Exercise: Distributing the covid vaccine

Close to six billion Covid-19 vaccine doses have been delivered by land, air, and sea to major cities as well as remote villages.

Text by Terry Ryan

It was only eighteen months ago, with the pandemic raging across the globe, that people in all parts of the world faced a severe shortage of personal protection equipment such as face masks and medical gloves.

With many countries closing their borders and the skies devoid of flights, the cross-border movement of goods and services, upon which we have become so reliant, came to a standstill.

Today, we may not give an enormous amount of thought to the hand sanitizer located at the entrance of every store, but they are very likely to have completed a journey that began in another part of the world.

These silent, unheralded, journeys show us how interconnected we are, irrespective of location, and the vital role of the global supply chain network in delivering daily necessities to us.

While the start of the pandemic revealed some of the vulnerabilities within this network, the period since then has reflected its underlying strengths. This is best exemplified by the ongoing and successful roll out of the Covid-19 vaccine.

Since the first of these were distributed at the end of 2020, close to six billion doses have been delivered by land, air, and sea to major cities as well as remote villages in a truly international effort to contain the spread of the virus.

Many have described it as the greatest logistical exercise in history with global logistics company DHL estimating, early on, that approximately 15,000 flights, 200,000 pallet shipments, and 15 million deliveries would be required to deliver a single dose to every person in the world.

However, it was not without its challenges. In addition to the unprecedented scale of the task at hand, there were numerous other issues to contend with.

This included but was not limited to the poor state of infrastructure in many places particularly in developing nations, the need to store the vaccines in specific temperatures as low as minus 80 Celsius in some cases, and the need to ensure the health and safety of those involved in transporting the vaccine. All this at a time when most places of work, and indeed borders, had been forced to close.

With national borders irrelevant in the face of the virus, governments were quick to recognize the critical role that the private sector could play, with companies belonging to the logistics and supply chain sector already possessing many of the resources required to deliver the vaccine at a global level.

Terry Ryan, CEO of DHL Supply Chain APAC

Terry Ryan, CEO of DHL Supply Chain APAC

For instance, the likes of DHL have spent decades building an on-the-ground presence across 220 countries and territories around the world – and benefit from the local knowledge and expertise this provides; have access to a global network of different transportation modes – across air, water, and land; possess data-led insights – that allow for real-time visibility and monitoring; and have a track record of dealing with crisis situations with dedicated and specifically trained teams – along with the ability to scale up capacity and maintain operations in emergencies.

The public-private collaboration between governments and companies has delivered prompt results, with flights operated by DHL delivering the first batch of vaccines in December 2020, an effort that was quickly expanded to countries across Asia and other parts of the world.

Since then, the company has leveraged its global supply chain network – spanning storage, collection, distribution, and transportation – to deliver over one billion doses in more than 160 countries, playing a major role in helping to vaccinate communities and curtail the spread of covid around the world.

While the battle is far from over, and our efforts to deliver vaccines continue apace, it is clear this is not the last health emergency the world will face. Indeed, global travel and changes in land use mean that the frequency of global pandemics is only expected to increase.

With this in mind, it is critical that we start looking toward the future now, and take the lessons we have learned over the course of this pandemic to identify and strengthen the pillars that will be key to meeting supply chain challenges of future global health emergencies.

As outlined in a White Paper DHL published in partnership with McKinsey at the start of the year, this includes developing a clear and pre-defined emergency response plan, building a partnership network of both public-private and private-private partnerships, identifying and ensuring access to required physical logistics infrastructure, establishing IT-enabled supply chain transparency, and creating organizational structures and allocating resources to institutionalize and coordinate the entire response management.

If we are able to deliver on these objectives and continue with the spirit of partnership the global community has displayed, I have no doubt the world will be better prepared to respond to future pandemics.

Terry Ryan is the CEO of DHL Supply Chain APAC

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