Sea Solutions

November 4th, 2013

Pharmaceutical companies worldwide are increasingly seeking more economical logistics solutions, leading them to switch from air to ocean freight for even some of the most time- and temperature-sensitive products such as vaccines.

​The quality of refrigerated containers has improved considerably and SDV has over ten years of experience in handling them on a door-to-door basis,” says Heinz Birchler, Zurich branch manager for SDV in Switzerland. “The transport of temperature-sensitive pharma products by ocean freight has become a reliable solution featuring GPS-monitored temperature and humidity controls over the course of the entire journey.” The cost savings are attractive. Birchler estimates that pharmaceutical exporters can spend up to 75 percent less by switching from air to sea transport.

Wanting to tap into these savings, one SDV client four years ago started sending vaccines by ocean freight from France and Belgium to destinations including the U.S., Canada, China and Malaysia. Encouraged by this success, the group is now also operating routes to Mexico, India, South Africa and Thailand, says Francois Artigaux, director of SDV’s Le Havre branch in France.

Shipping pharmaceutical goods by sea remains far from simple, however. Vaccines, for example, must be maintained at a temperature of between +2°and +8° Celsius over the course of a three-week journey to China or a nine-day trip to Canada and the U.S.The reefer containers risk potentially dangerous temperature changes during the transport to and from the port and when they are loaded and unloaded from one ship to another.

“These are very expensive and vulnerable products that are vital to public health and that are not normally shipped by sea,” says Artigaux. “We are aiming for total reliability.”

The financial stakes are high. A 20-foot reefer container of vaccines such as the Pentavalent combination or rotavirus vaccines is worth between $1.8 million and $2.8 million, notes a recent report by the PATH non-profit organization and the World Health Organization.

SDV first analyses the door-to-door transport chain and takes all measures to protect the cargo, including the implementation of standard operating procedures and check-lists that the shipping companies and trucking companies must strictly follow. For example, SDV asks the shipping companies to outline how they check the temperature of the containers during the voyage (manually or automatically) and how many mechanics and spare parts the ship will carry to fix any problems. If required, the pallets holding the containers are also wrapped in insulated thermal blankets to further protect against temperature changes.

Other products handled by SDV are subject to different temperature ranges, such as human blood plasma at -20° Celsius or colder and finished pharmaceutical products such as antibiotics that must be transported within a range of +15° to +25°Celsius, says Birchler. SDV has another customer that transports finished pharmaceuticals worth several million dollars each shipment from Europe to destinations including the U.S., Japan, China and Australia. Liability is an important topic of negotiations with the shipping lines, Birchler adds.

For this client, the validated trucking companies must complete a check-list that starts when they pick up the container. If the truck journey takes longer than three hours, the truck driver must check and document the temperature of the container every three hours.

SDV only uses validated refrigerated containers that comply with SDV’s list of requirements. The containers must be less than five years old and totally dry and free of odours because medical products can absorb smells. They must also have a valid pre-check.

SDV requests special and urgent handling from the shipping companies. The containers, for example, must be connected to an electricity supply within 60 minutes from when they are unloaded from the truck. During road transport, the containers must be connected to a power generator.

Even when transporters meet all these requirements, the pharmaceutical companies must still have sufficient volumes to fill a container. SDV’s services include advising on the correct loading of the container to guarantee balanced and consistent atmospheric conditions (temperature and humidity). Consolidating less-than-container loads of pharmaceutical cargo shipments has until now been highly risky given the extra loading and unloading that is required, Birchler says.

SDV is therefore exploring the possibility of setting-up reefer consolidation boxes from clustered production areas to a limited number of destinations. “Demand for sending pharmaceuticals by sea is on the rise but there are still constraints,” Birchler adds. “You cannot just handle pharmaceutical products as you would normal sea freight.

Key Figures
  • 20%

    More fuel-efficient for the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A350

  • 70%

    of Urbanisation is expected by 2050

  • 27

    mega-cities are expected by 2050, with at least 10 million people, compared to 1...

  • +18,4%

    of growth for E-commerce retail market in Europe in 2015

  • 82%

    of goods are moved by road

  • 1 billion

    Population in Africa

  • 60%

    of Africa’s population will be urbanized by 2050

  • 7,5%

    of growth for Indian GDP in 2014

  • 4,9%

    of growth for African GDP in 2016

  • 6,1%

    of growth for East Asian GDP in 2015, the world’s fastest-growing region

  • 19 224 teus

    transported by the MSC Oscar, the largest container ship in the world

  • 396 m

    is the size of the MSC Oscar ship

  • 120 h

    is the Non-Stop Flight Record done by Solar Impulse

  • 4,5%

    of growth in 2015 for Global Airfreight demand