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Last-mile delivery problems hampering pace of Covid vaccine rollout, distributors say

The race to provide safe and effective coronavirus vaccinations has been curtailed by logistical problems associated with last-mile delivery, according to executives at two companies helping to distribute inoculations.

The mass rollout of vaccines is thought to be the biggest logistical challenge the world has ever seen, with everyone from policymakers to manufacturers grappling with questions over cost, transportation, distribution and equitable access.

Vaccine developers have estimated it will be possible to produce enough doses for more than one-third of the world’s population by the end of 2021. However, while many high-income countries have started to administer doses, others have been left behind.

“I said from the beginning it will not be a problem of global logistics, it will be a problem of last-mile (delivery) from our warehouses to doctors or whoever because it is difficult to transport minus 70 degrees products,” Deutsche Post DHL CEO Frank Appel told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on Tuesday.

“And, of course, it is also difficult to scale capacity so rapidly because nobody knew which vaccine would work,” Appel said.

Cargo is loaded into a Lufthansa Cargo aircraft at Frankfurt Airport, in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany, on November 25, 2020.

THOMAS LOHNES | AFP | Getty Images

His comments on transporting vaccines at ultra-cold temperatures ostensibly referred to the Covid vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, which must be kept at a temperature of about minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit) and requires special storage equipment and transportation.

Many other safe and effective Covid vaccines do not require ultra-cold storage during distribution.

Appel said Deutsche Post DHL was “well prepared” to deliver Covid vaccines over the coming months, having already operated more than 50 flights transporting shipments within Europe and elsewhere.

‘There won’t be a bottleneck in the air freight industry’

Dorothea von Boxberg, member of the executive board and chief commercial officer at Lufthansa Cargo, said on Tuesday that the air freight industry would be ready to deliver Covid vaccines during an expected surge in global demand later this year.

“The industry is prepared. There won’t be a bottleneck in the air freight section of it to deliver the vaccines. I think we are there,” von Boxberg said via videoconference at the Davos Agenda summit.

She told CNBC’s Julianna Tatelbaum that “every freighter is in the air every time it can be,” after acknowledging the airline industry had been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.

When asked to identify the major issues hampering a faster rollout of Covid vaccines, von Boxberg said it was a question of vaccine availability and last-mile delivery.

“You don’t only need the vaccine, but you also have to have the patient, the doctor, additional material like syringes. So, it is a big, big logistical effort to get everything in place, and also keeping the cold chain at the same time for the vaccines,” von Boxberg said.

The United Nations said last week that it is working with governments “around the clock” to make sure that countries are ready to receive Covid vaccines in the coming weeks. This means working alongside airlines, and freight and logistics providers “to ensure safe and timely delivery.”

It is hoped the mass rollout of Covid vaccines could help bring an end to the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed over 2.1 million lives worldwide.

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