The Cold Chain Logistics Behind Vaccine Shipping and Pharmaceutical Distribution

January 25, 2021

As the global search to find a COVID-19 vaccine comes to a close, the next step of the journey begins. Distributing millions of doses of the vaccine to hospitals, health departments, nursing homes, and other care facilities across the globe will present its own unique challenges. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that 25% of all vaccines reach their destination degraded—or less effective—because of incorrect shipping. Similarly, 30% of unused pharmaceuticals are the result of logistics issues alone. 

While cold chain logistics have enabled the safe transport of temperature-sensitive goods for decades, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA’s) and Center for Disease Control (CDC’s) stringent vaccine shipment requirements bring new hurdles. As a result, many businesses are leveraging IoT solutions to gain end-to-end visibility into their operations. Read on to learn how customers are delivering vaccine materials safely and quickly, with the help of Samsara.

Ensuring frigid temperatures are reached 

Transporting the first and second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine will perhaps most notably rely on precise temperatures. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine will need to reach and maintain a temperature of -94 degrees Fahrenheit in order to stay effective as it travels thousands of miles from distribution centers to healthcare facilities. While Moderna’s vaccine must be shipped at comparatively warmer temperatures, at -4 degrees Fahrenheit, reaching this temperature will be equally important.

Temperatures this low can present issues. Reefer failure can occur and temperature fluctuations can be more damaging. According to Samsara data, leaving a reefer door open for just five minutes can increase reefer temperatures by an average of five degrees Fahrenheit. If a door is left open for 30 minutes, reefer temperatures can increase on average by a whopping 18 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Incompatibility with electronics, like temperature sensors, can be another debilitating factor. “You can’t put a device inside a refrigeration system at those temperatures—few electronics can survive it,” said Samsara mechanical engineer Andrew Deagon, who helped build Samsara’s Environmental Monitor in 2016. “But, you can use a probe in an ultracold environment. It will withstand the temperature and provide you with an accurate temperature read.”

Maintaining consistent temperatures throughout transport

While reaching a specific temperature is essential to any type of pharmaceutical shipping, it’s just as important to maintain that temperature for the duration of the trip. Keeping consistent temperatures is key for KoolShot Expedited (KSE), a division of Frozen Food Express

KSE specializes in pharmaceutical transportation, shipping everything from contact lens solutions to cancer treatments. They’re also supporting coronavirus vaccine distribution with last-mile services for essential items like lab equipment, raw samples, and tests.

Because KSE operates in a wide range of climates across the United States, maintaining temperature ranges can be challenging. 

“We transport in New York where it’s snowing, and in Houston where it’s a balmy 80 degrees,” said Cody Cook, KSE’s general manager. “We need to make sure our equipment can hold a consistent temperature with no fluctuations.”

To do this, KSE specifies the temperature range a product can be held at and for how long. Once that is completed, KSE uses Samsara Environmental Monitors to continuously monitor conditions inside the trailer and record data to confirm that the product remains within the correct temperature range.

“Accurate reporting is everything,” Cook said. “These products are going to be used directly on people, and we want to be confident we’re doing everything as safely as possible.”

Gaining greater visibility into end-to-end operations    

Most vaccinations only need to be kept at 35-45 degrees Fahrenheit, so maintaining vials at below freezing temperatures is certainly a challenge. But, cargo this important also comes with a need for heightened attention to safety and efficiency. 

"Cold chain logistics require an immense attention to detail, and even more so when vaccines are the cargo,” said Neel Sheth, Samsara’s Director of Product Management. “That's why, for our customers involved in vaccine distribution, temperature monitoring is just one part of the solution."

The importance of this has been compounded by delays to Operation Warp Speed that are causing postponements to standing vaccine appointments. The New York Times reported that shipping delays are in part responsible for cancelled appointments, something that could cause a four month delay for those not yet on the vaccine priority list. 

To help increase efficiency, shippers are relying on telematics for end-to-end visibility. For KSE, insight into their workflows is critical. KSE leverages Samsara Vehicle Gateways (VGs) to receive real-time location information about where their drivers are. This data makes a huge difference, particularly in getting shipments to their destinations as quickly as possible.   

“The VG provides second-by-second tracking so we can help drivers if they take a wrong turn or if they need to be navigated out of a busy area,” Cook said. “We can now give them step-by-step instructions instead of only getting a single GPS ping every 15-20 minutes.”

KSE also uses Samsara AI Dash Cams to prioritize safety and coach drivers in real time, but has found Samsara’s all-in-one platform to have the most considerable value to their business. “The biggest advantage is the single source solution the Samsara platform provides,” Cook said. “The consolidation and ease of use is a huge plus in all our pharmaceutical shipping needs.”

How the Samsara platform can help support pharmaceutical shipping

The Samsara platform includes continuous temperature monitoring, remote refrigeration control, real-time GPS tracking, and more—making it simple to manage the cold chain logistics behind pharmaceutical shipping. With Samsara Environmental Monitors, your fleet can collect continuous temperature data on the same dashboard used for routing, driver workflows, and idling alerts. Plus, two-way reefer control allows you to adjust temperatures remotely and live reefer diagnostics can help your team address issues in real time to maintain cold chain integrity.

“Samsara has provided a successful platform for us to not only track and trace our shipments but also validate our equipment with accurate and precise data,” Cook said.

To learn more about how Samsara can support your business in pharmaceutical shipping, read more about how we can partner with you for the long-term or reach out for a free trial today. 

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