Planning for the pharma logistics peak season can never start too soon

Every year, we’re warned the next peak will be even bigger. And every year, it’s proven right. Just as the economy keeps growing, peak keeps getting higher as more goods flow through all parts of the global supply chain – air, sea and truck.

Normally, capacity creeps up to meet demand. But the pandemic has reversed the trend. Air freight – a mainstay of cold chain logistics – has been impacted badly and there is now a significant squeeze on space.

As of June 2022, global airline capacity was 83.6 per cent of where it was for the same week in 2019[i]. While it’s slowly recovering, it’s still forecast to be well below 2019 levels by the start of September when things begin to ramp up for peak. In short, there will be less space for cargo than there used to be.

A challenge for pharmaceutical firms

While pharmaceutical firms battle to hold onto the air freight capacity they’re used to, they face the added pressure of continuing to deliver the vaccine airlift with 33 per cent of the globe having not received even a single dose[ii].

Then there’s another burden they must bear. While 66 per cent of the globe has received at least one vaccine[iii], this is predominantly in developed nations.

Nigeria has just 9.5 per cent of its nation vaccinated with a single dose[iv]. There are no manufacturing sites in the country. To get vaccines there, it needs to be flown. This tells us one thing: the hardest part of the airlift is still to come.

Added to this is the growing development and production of other temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals and biomedicines.

What’s more, the traditional peak season will be less focussed on the end-of-year crescendo. It will remain at fever pitch throughout 2022 with mini peaks as vaccine surges take place. We saw this in late 2021 when developed nations rushed to introduce boosters in the face of omicron[v].

To summarise, demand from all shippers is up, but supply chain capacity is limited with greater pressure on air freight than ever. Yet pharmaceutical firms need more air capacity than ever to move vaccines and other drugs.

All of this makes planning for peak – and the bumpy ride as we approach it – crucial.

Rising to the challenge

Trying times like this call for innovation.The sector needs to maximise every single cm3 of space in air freight. This calls for highly efficient cold chain packing that can both protect its precious cargo and reduce wasted capacity.

Therefore, companies have turned to temperature-controlled containers. These are rechargeable and reusable units that move around the globe in a circular economy, a little like high-tech shipping containers. With an 11-hour charge, some can maintain internal temperatures for over a week.

The main – and significant – benefit of a temperature-controlled container is that it can increase payload. In short, you can squeeze more pharmaceuticals into a plane. Up to 35 per cent more in some cases. This eases the pressure on the system and reduces costs, which have been spiralling. What’s more, the larger the container, the bigger the payload.

They also cut the likelihood of shipments being lost to a temperature deviation. According to an IATA study from 2019, up to 25 per cent of vaccines have been degraded by the time they arrive at their destination[vi] owing to temperature deviations. This creates huge waste, potentially requiring consignments to be scrapped and new supplies flown out. Temperature-controlled containers can slash this. Just 0.06 per cent of all shipments with these containers suffer from temperature excursions.

Planning now will pay off in the future

It’s clear peak – and most of 2022 – is going to be challenging for pharmaceutical shippers, forwarders and the air cargo industry. But making slight changes – such as choosing the right packaging – can make it easier.

Now is the time for the industry to act. Because there are few other options allowing it to live up to the huge expectations upon it. Medicines are needed around the globe – and they must be delivered regardless of the extraordinary pressures all stakeholders face. Planning and partnership can never start too soon.


[i] https://www.oag.com/coronavirus-airline-schedules-data

[ii] https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations

[iii] https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations

[iv] https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations

[v] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/18/omicron-countries-push-to-ramp-up-booster-shot-rollouts-as-covid-cases-spike

[vi] The Conversation

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