Pharmaceutical Distributors are at the Forefront of Cold Chain Logistics

September 18, 2020

As the fight against the coronavirus pandemic continues, the successful development of effective COVID-19 vaccines will represent a pivotal moment in our country’s efforts to end this public health crisis. However, the discovery of a vaccine is just the first step of many to ensure these critical medicines are widely accessible to providers and their patients.

To that end, the distribution of safe and effective vaccines will rely on complex and efficient logistics.

The leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates are classified as “cold chain” products, which require specific storage and transportation needs from the moment they leave a manufacturer’s facility to when they reach a healthcare provider or patient at the point of dispensation or administration.

But what exactly does “cold chain” mean, and why is specialized transportation and storage of these vital treatments so crucial to their effectiveness?

Pharmaceutical Cold Chain Logistics

“Cold chain products” refer to medicines that must be kept within a precise temperature range. These products include vaccines, biologics, oncology treatments, some types of insulin and other medicines.

Most cold chain products need to be maintained between 2 to 8 degrees Celsius, while frozen products need to be kept below minus 10 degrees Celsius. Several of the leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates are classified as “ultra-cold chain” and may need to be held at temperatures below minus 80 degrees Celsius.

Maintaining the integrity of these vaccines and other cold chain products involves:

  • Storing within the required temperature range during warehouse storage and transport;
  • Packing and shipping according to recommended procedures;
  • Keeping within recommended cold chain conditions across all points of the supply chain; and,
  • Appropriate storage and handling at point of care sites.
  • Extensive Experience Handling Complex Treatments

Pharmaceutical distributors leverage their significant expertise with cold chain storage and transportation when handling temperature-sensitive products and other specialty medicines.

There are several factors to consider when determining which packing materials to use for cold chain shipments, including shipping and handling requirements for each drug, expected transit duration, the type of transportation carrier to be used and expected weather conditions while in transit.

Further, packaging innovation has enabled distributors to continually improve cold chain compliance. Distributors use various packing types and transportation solutions to maintain the precise temperature ranges needed to ensure the integrity of sensitive products, including: ice and gel packs, FDA-approved insulated boxes, dry ice, temperature-monitoring devices and refrigerated transportation. The temperature-controlled containers can hold products for several days and dry ice is used to extend that time period.

The number of medicines requiring cold chain handling is increasing. In 2018, half of the drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were temperature-sensitive products, and the overall value of cold chain treatments is expected to grow at approximately twice the rate of standard medicines between 2018 and 2024. In response, the industry continues to innovate and invest in cold chain capabilities.

Leveraging the Existing Supply Chain in COVID-19 Treatment Distribution

Distributors’ expertise in transporting cold chain products and other specialty treatments will play a critical role in distributing COVID-19 vaccines. With the industry’s investments in cutting-edge, temperature-controlled supply chain protocols, distributors stand ready to preserve the integrity of groundbreaking COVID-19 treatments.

The unprecedented demand for approved vaccines and therapies as they come to market will require close coordination among the federal and state governments, public health experts and the private sector. Distributors are prepared to deploy their logistics expertise and cold chain capabilities to ensure patient access to vital COVID-19 treatments across the country.

For an inside look at pharmaceutical cold chain logistics, check out our latest infographic. For additional COVID-19 information and resources, visit: