On the move, ice-cold

At the latest during the coronavirus pandemic, it became evident to everyone: Drugs and medical products need to be supplied in sufficient quantity at the right time to those places where they are urgently needed. And worldwide, too. But pharmaceutical products such as vaccines or special equipment require particularly sensitive transport – and that presents logistics companies with very special challenges.

Coronavirus, cancer, rheumatism – these are just three of many diseases for which drugs and therapy equipment need to be transported across countries and continents. The health sector has been growing for years: Gross value added in the sector was close on EUR 364.5 billion in 2020, as revealed in the report Gesundheitswirtschaft: Zahlen und Fakten [Health Sector: Facts and Figures] from Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (at the time of publication, the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy). That corresponds to over 12.1 percent of gross domestic product. The health economy’s share in total exports from Germany is 8.8 percent – and that in a sector whose main work is direct services to the patient.

From clinic trials and emergency use listing to production, transportation, storage and final administration by local health workers

Follow the journey of a vaccine

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“Phygital” change brings innovations

The sector is similarly booming worldwide. The spend on drugs alone rose between 2006 and 2022 from USD 658 billion to USD 1,430 billion worldwide, as Statista shows. In barely any other sector is so much research being undertaken and so many innovations produced as in the health economy. The aging of many societies worldwide, better access to medical products, technical progress, and growing purchasing power is causing the market in many countries to grow faster than their gross domestic product (GDP). By 2030, the consultants Roland Berger predicted as early as 2008, the health sector is set to grow to USD 20 trillion.

In a 2021 study, the company predicted a global spend of EUR 1 trillion on digital health alone by as early as 2026. The covid pandemic has generated additional demand for vaccines and lifesaving drugs – the market for drugs and pharma products is resistant to global economic fluctuations.

Roland Berger confirms a “phygital” change, combining physical innovations in mechanical engineering, electrics, biology, and chemistry with innovations in the digital world. The latter relates e.g., to the early identification of diseases and the use of artificial intelligence in medicine. Thus mRNA vaccines or cell and gene therapies are able to be used against diseases such as cancer or severe viral infections, for instance.

Seamless monitoring and a high-performance cool chain

These innovations are producing highly sensitive products that need to be brought quickly to patients. They are transported by air freight or via sea, but in all cases some part of the route also needs to be tackled by road. The key aspect here is that all drugs need to reach their destination intact. Since drug production takes place nowadays at multiple sites around the globe, component products or precursors for medical products also need to travel to the next manufacturing stage.

But during transport, many factors can harm the cure-bringing freight: Oxygen, pressure, vibrations, humidity, light or x-rays are just some of them. Probably the most important requirement for damage-free transport can be seen as correct ambient temperature control during transport and interim storage of vaccines, tablets, tinctures, salves etc.

Because one thing must be guaranteed without fail: All drugs must reach the patient in such a way that their therapeutic capabilities are fully preserved. The regulatory authorities even specify as much: Manufacturers must demonstrate monitoring of product quality through to the time of treating the patient. Their monitoring function in the supply chain only ends when the product is delivered to the chemist or to the hospital.

In today's environment safe and secure transport of high value, complex healthcare shipments has never been more important

UPS Healthcare Cold Chain at Work

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Safety first

For that reason, logistics providers must transport pharma products within particular tolerances, despite widely varying climatic conditions. Logistics companies are therefore equipping their vehicle fleets with vehicles that guarantee the temperatures specified by the manufacturers on the packaging and that are GDP certified. GDP – Good Distribution Practice of medicinal products for human use – was implemented in 2013 by the European Commission. It requires compliance with certain safety precautions by carriers during the transport process. Apart from respecting the temperature specifications, it is particularly important to avoid theft, breakages, and damage. This must be ensured even during interim storage and unloading or transferring of the goods. If the products need to be stored between several transport stages, the storage times are to be kept as short as possible.

Logistics companies and transport companies are responding to these requirements and challenges with various measures. Firstly, the vehicles are suitably equipped: Refrigerated semi-trailers, reefer chassis, temperature monitoring sensors, and telematics systems are just some of the equipment features typical of trailer trucks, trucks, and vans for delivery of medical products.

Sensitive medical devices need special protection from damage during transport. Photo Darko Stojanovic / Pixabay

Heating systems and cooling systems

Webasto, for instance, offers to equip vehicle fleets with heating, air-con and transport cooling solutions to customer requirements, in accordance with the statutory specifications.  These solutions include hot air heating, air conditioning units, transport cooling units and corresponding operating and control units, via which the temperature conditions in the load space can be regulated from the driver’s seat at the press of a button, together with data loggers for tracking and recording the prescribed temperature ranges.

To avoid damage, the products must be stowed appropriately. For instance, liquid drugs in glass packagings need to be placed such that their load stability is ensured and empty spaces in between are protected with packaging material. Medical products such as tools, devices, materials, reagents, or accessories must similarly be sensitively packed. That not uncommonly presents logistics companies with major challenges, since medical devices often do not come in standard dimensions and are considered as oversize loads.

Interim storage is almost as complicated as transport itself

Special precautions also need to be taken for interim storage: Real-time monitoring, precise localization, and prioritization of medical shipments in the logistics centers are part of this, for example. Some companies, such as UPS Healthcare, even go further. The logistics service provider is planning to open a branch in Giessen in 2023 that is specially equipped for shipments for the health sector. Covering an area of close on 25,000 m2, health products will be capable of being stored at temperatures from 2°C to 8°C, 15°C to 25°C and down to -20°C.[CL1]   Same-day delivery and help with speedy customs clearance are equally part of the service from the Atlanta-based company, as it is for its competitor dhl. Dhl also offers temperature-controlled packagings or transport in dry ice.

Above all, one thing unites all service providers: The aspiration to supply vital products on time, flawlessly, and undamaged – because that is the most important thing for those who are ill.