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April 28, 2021updated 12 May 2021 11:34am

How logistics became a key tool in the fight against Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic has seen an unprecedented surge in demand for medical devices and equipment – even before the race to supply the world with vaccines began.

The first half of 2020 saw trade in personal protective equipment (PPE) jump by 50 per cent compared to the previous year – with trade global imports and exports of medical goods increasing by 15.8 per cent year on year in the first half of 2020.

Some goods have seen larger trade shocks – imports and exports of face masks increased by 87.4% compared to the first half of 2019 – almost doubling.

Many of these masks will have been transported by healthcare logistics companies to the front line in the battle against the virus – hospitals, medical practices and pharmacies.

The increase in medical trade began in 2020, at the start of the pandemic. It has only grown since – accelerated by the advent of vaccines, which bring their own logistical challenges.

It begins in a large vat, where bacteria churn out DNA which will eventually be used to create a Covid-19 vaccine.

After filtering, this DNA is packed and frozen, before being shipped in special containers to a separate processing plant. There, scientists perform a complicated conversion process to turn it into messenger RNA. It is packed and frozen again, before being transported to a fill and finish plant to be combined with other ingredients, dispensed into vials, and put into cold storage.

The vials then begin their journey as vaccines – transported in custom thermal containers to keep them at sub-zero temperatures as they travel on airlines to distribution hubs.

Timeliness is key, as the doses head on to hospitals, pharmacies and other healthcare centres – all while being kept at the right temperature – before eventually making their way into people’s arms.

Right at the heart of this achievement has been the healthcare logistics industry, making sure supply chains kept moving in an efficient manner, ensuring vital elements were where they needed to be at just the right time.

As a leading player in the global healthcare logistics market, UPS Healthcare has been central to the pandemic effort, leveraging its worldwide network and expertise to help organisations as diverse as pharmaceutical giants, CROs, new biotech start-ups, patient support groups and government agencies with Covid-specific initiatives across all regions.

From transporting testing kits and personal protection equipment (PPE) to distributing critical life-saving medications to healthcare facilities, to more recently moving batches of life-saving vaccines to sites all over the world, UPS Healthcare has been there to provide reliable and secure services to those on the frontline when they needed it.

In Europe, UPS Healthcare has been a partner of choice to transport vaccines manufactured in Belgium, at -80 degrees Celsius directly to vaccination centres around the world. In the US, it is a key partner in Operation Warp Speed, partnering to deliver vaccines there safely and efficiently. The company has made deliveries to a wide range of territories as diverse as Korea, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Ghana.

“Given UPS Healthcare’s unique size, scale and global reach, we feel a sense of purpose and duty to leverage our network to help fight the pandemic and to help save lives,” says Graham Cromb, vice president Europe operations at UPS Healthcare.

According to GlobalData’s Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker, there have to date been over 805 million doses of a Covid-19 vaccine administered. Each one required a detailed and careful supply chain logistics plan. And with less than 6% of the world’s population having received at least one dose, there is clearly an even bigger part to be played by healthcare logistics specialists in the remaining global vaccination programme.

Understanding the market

Fredrik Jansson, managing director East Europe, UPS Healthcare, has worked for the company for 20 years and was responsible for opening its first GMP-compliant distribution centre in the Netherlands in 2010. He now oversees operations in Central and Eastern Europe, including centres in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as a transportation fleet that covers the whole region.

He has experienced first-hand how the business has utilised its knowledge, expertise, infrastructure and vast supply chain capabilities to diversify, grow and scale into a single, customer-centric supply chain solutions provider. But he’s never experienced a year like 2020.

“It’s been very different,” Jansson admits. “Things closed down, the supply chain changed quickly, certain activities in hospitals were postponed, which drove down some areas of distribution. But at the same time, there was an increased need for PPE distribution.”

Now, of course, along with the business’ regular activities, there’s the delivery of the Covid-19 vaccines, which must arrive on time, at the right temperature and in the right condition.

Jansson says the business was ready to meet this huge logistical responsibility because its specialized end-to-end cold chain solutions, combined with trusted supplier status and infrastructure, were already in place. “If you look at where I am in Central and Eastern Europe, our supply chain already supports the majority – eight out of the top 10 – of vaccine manufacturers. Our knowledge built over the last 25 years has given us the capabilities and the scale.”


Central Europe – especially Germany – is responsible for one of the worlds largest concentrations of vaccine manufacturing plants for Covid-19. From these plants, the vaccines are shipped out across the world by medical logistics firms.

You can see which countries have ordered shipments of which vaccines using the graphic below. It will be up to companies like UPS to make sure they are delivered on time and in good condition.

Beyond its pandemic services, UPS Healthcare continues to help its customers overcome their pain points and Jansson is seeing some interesting trends. Companies in the healthcare sector increasingly expect an audit trail, he says. This means they want to digitally follow their product through the supply chain in real time, from the regional distribution point all the way to the final destination.

As scientific advances mean their needs become more complex and costlier – cell and gene therapies, blood samples, biological tissues and the new range of vaccines, for example, demand international or cross-border distribution capabilities – they’re also looking for one supplier to fulfil a multi-service function. And as medicines are becoming more time- and temperature-sensitive than ever, this is generating growing demand for value-added logistics services that pay special attention to these types of products. Perhaps the most recent high-profile example is the Moderna mRNA vaccine.

Jansson expects this trend to accelerate. “We already have that setup, and I see more development in that area,” he says. “In the last 12 months, the pandemic has put more focus on reliability and robustness in the supply chain, as well as the flexibility to react quickly to support customers. It has never been more important,” he says.

Built with agility at its core

It’s no wonder UPS Healthcare has played such a crucial role to date – the dedicated healthcare division has been built to meet the specific needs of the pharma and life sciences customers it supports, mirroring their agility, quality and commitment to saving lives. It answers the specific needs of pharma and healthcare companies, customising solutions helping its clients optimize the supply chain. “This way they can focus on their work, while we focus on the logistics challenges. Both parties keep patients’ interests front of mind,” says Cromb.

Its healthcare services are extensive, diverse, innovative and, crucially, nimble: 900,000 sq m of healthcare-licensed distribution space, or the equivalent of 150 football pitches; a dedicated network of 6,000 healthcare supply chain professionals; cold chain capabilities, including a global freezer farm network; GDP- and GMP-compliant transport globally in air and ocean freight, as well as on the ground; plus, the storage and fulfilment of medical devices, labs and clinical trial specimens.

All of these services have been critical in 2020 but aren’t exclusive to the pandemic. UPS Healthcare was created to meet the specific, complex and evolving supply chain needs of the healthcare and life sciences sectors now and into the future.

As Cromb says: “We have a tremendous focus on ensuring we understand the language of our customers – the language of pharma – as well as from a supply chain standpoint. We’re focused on solving the challenges that may be unique to healthcare – from warehousing and distribution to freight and clinical trials. And of course, people are at the end of our supply chain and depend on us to deliver critical life-saving medicines.”

The business has a wealth of healthcare capabilities and expertise under one roof – including the industry-leading clinical logistics provider Marken, acquired in 2016, and Polar Speed. At the same time, it remains able to draw on the vast global network of UPS. All of which means UPS Healthcare acts as a vertically integrated, supply chain provider from manufacturing plant right through to delivery to hospitals, labs, pharmacies and patients. Its unique selling point – that it’s a quality focused, patient driven supply chain company – marks it out as a unique and innovative presence in the market.

Quality focused, patient driven

This customer-centric and patient driven mindset, combined with a truly global capability, trusted partner status, and years of logistics experience is what sets UPS Healthcare apart, agrees Cromb, who has more than 20 years of experience in the healthcare sector.

There are only a few companies with the breadth and scale to be able to support the world’s current healthcare needs, believes Cromb, and UPS Healthcare was there when it was required. More than that, it has been reliably there throughout the pandemic. As well as its cold chain solutions, Cromb says its information systems are best in class. “When we talk about quality, we also mean in the broadest sense of the word, in terms of maintaining data security and privacy, for example.” In addition, UPS Healthcare tracks a box or package using innovative sensor technology, which means it knows temperature and positioning, anytime, anywhere.

“In this digital age, there is a desire for information,” says Cromb. “Our command centres in the Netherlands and in Louisville, US leverage all sorts of information, from whether the packages have been shaken to interpreting what’s happening in terms of the weather. All of that data helps us make better routing decisions.”

No wonder that GlobalData’s most recent Emerging Technology Trends Survey in Pharma survey found big data was rated as the most important emerging technology (56% rated it as important).

Cromb explains that while such data can be merely “nice to have” for some less vital deliveries, in healthcare logistics, where medical staff are expected to administer treatments that have been delivered through a supply chain, they need to be 100% certain they can trust the cold chain has been kept intact all the way through an entire journey. As Cromb says, “The eyes of the world are upon us to help deliver life-saving packages, that’s why we lead with quality.”

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