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
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.