BY KEITH NORBURY
A year ago, though, as those vaccines were winding their way through the Health Canada approval process, the Canadian government appeared to have given little thought to how to transport those vaccines to their destinations. For example, the federal government convened an 11-member COVID-19 task force of whom none appeared to have any transportation expertise. And it wasn’t until Sept. 24 that Public Services and Procurement Canada, on behalf of the Public Health Agency of Canada, issued a letter of interest “seeking information on logistic capabilities to support the transport, storage and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines.” Then, on Dec. 7, 2020, the Canadian government announced it had awarded a contract to FedEx Express Canada and Innomar Strategies Inc. “for an end-to-end COVID-19 logistics solution for COVID-19 vaccines.”
Nearly 65 million doses distributed
That solution must have worked because as of Sept. 16, 2021, 64.1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines had been confirmed as distributed in Canada, according to the federal government. They included 43 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, now called Comirnaty; 18.1 million doses of Moderna’s SpikeVax; and 3 million does of AstraZeneca’s Vaxzevria. There were also 10.2 million COVID-19 vaccines in the central vaccine inventory. “I think FedEx did a helluva job,” said Shawn Baird, President of Ontario-based Sharp Transportation Systems Inc., and also noted that DHL also was involved in some vaccine distribution.
Mr. Baird, who describes himself as a “staunch Conservative,” even reserved credit for the Liberal federal government’s handling of the vaccine distribution.
“I think they did pretty good with this whole rollout. I was impressed with the whole thing,” said Mr. Baird, who has even tracked FedEx planes on flightradar24.com as they flew from Europe to Memphis, then Toronto with the vaccines.
Dr. David Gillen, who was then Director of the Centre for Transportation Studies at the University of B.C. in Vancouver, was critical last September of the federal government’s preparations for transporting the vaccines once they became available. “I don’t think that the infrastructure is in place,” Dr. Gillen said at the time. “I think there are some real challenges, particularly if that vaccine gets delivered at some point in the winter.” A year later, though, he conceded that the logistical challenges had largely been met. “Certainly, I think that one of the things that happened was that there was a tremendous increase in the availability of air cargo,” said Dr. Gillen, who has since retired from the Centre for Transportation Studies but still is a UBC professor. “So I think that got moved around and really addressed the problem.”
Nevertheless he remained skeptical about “whether you can believe what the government is telling you,” adding that “the government, and particularly some provincial governments, did a very poor job of communicating as to what the evolution of the scientific evidence was, and so people became wary of what was being said.” And that, he said, likely fuelled the suspicions of anti-vaccine protesters, although he also admitted he didn’t anticipate all the turmoil that anti-vaxxers would cause. “I would have thought that the population today was at least semi-literate in terms of statistics, and just with the simple notion of probabilities,” Dr. Gillen said. “But it’s pretty clear, they aren’t.”
Mr. Baird used a sports analogy to describe the importance of vaccination against COVID-19. “The vaccine is the only defensive play we have,” Mr. Baird said. “Unless you want to self-isolate in your house for the rest of your life and not be in contact with anybody, we have no defence other than the vaccine.”
Handling guidance changed
One of the initial concerns about transporting the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines was they require special handling involving storage and transport at ultra-low temperatures. The Pfizer vaccine needs to stored at -70 degrees Celsius and the Moderna version at -20 C. Initial reports indicated that both could be kept at regular refrigerator temperature of 2-8 degrees C for a few days — five days in the case of the Pfizer vaccine — just before being administered. It later became apparent that the vaccines could be safely stored for much longer at standard fridge temperatures. On May 19, 2021, for example, Health Canada announced that the Pfizer vaccine could be stored at 2-8 degrees C “at the point of use for up to one month.”
Dr. Gillen said that change in guidance “significantly” eased the storage and transportation issues and improved accessibility. “You’re able to distribute the vaccine much more broadly and in the same micro-locations, as opposed to having central locations, and then having everybody come to some central depot in order to get the vaccine,” Dr. Gillen said. “It made a big difference in terms of people accessing the vaccine, and then us getting our percentages up.”
FedEx efforts began in December
Canadian Sailings reached out to James Anderson, communications advisor for FedEx Express Canada, for some insights into how the company met the challenges of transporting the vaccines. Unfortunately, he was unable to arrange an interview with a designated vaccine spokesperson by deadline. However, the arrival of first Moderna vaccines from Brussels at the end of December of 2020 occurred within 48 hours of Health Canada’s approval, according to a news release on the company’s Web site. “Meeting the deadline was made possible by extensive collaboration with the government of Canada to move more vaccines from Europe into Canada,” the article added. “Additionally, the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines requires coordination of numerous teams including customs brokers, airports, ground transportation crews and internal security teams working with provincial, and federal law enforcement agencies, all during a time when lockdowns and border closures are commonplace.”
According to a Dec. 9, Freightwaves article, FedEx Canada “has 32 dedicated aircraft serving 25 domestic airports” and more than 3,000 vehicles, including more than 270 tractors. That aircraft fleet include Airbus 300s and 310s, Boeing 757s and 767s, and MD-10s and MD-11s “all with the range to ferry vaccines from European manufacturing sites to major Canadian airports,” the article said.
Military plays its part
FedEx and Innomar worked under the direction of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Operations Centre led by Maj.-Gen. Dany Fortin. He became the public face of Canada’s COVID-19 distribution effort until he left the post in May following an allegation of a sexual impropriety three decades earlier. Brig.-Gen. Krista Brodie replaced him in that position, in what by all accounts has been a seamless transition.
“The military is built around logistics, and they understand logistics,” Dr. Gillen said. “It’s part of their DNA. That’s what you need: somebody who is going to be able to organize the troops to get this stuff flowing, as opposed to somebody who is kind of new with the game. I think it was probably a pretty shrewd move to put the military in charge.”
Under its agreement with the vaccine suppliers, plenty more COVID-19 vaccines will be available to Canadians. The deal with Pfizer, for example, allocated up to 76 million doses in total for Canada; a similar deal with Moderna provides 44 million total doses. That would leave about 33 million Pfizer doses and 26 million Moderna doses still to come.
Canada has also struck deals for 38 million doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, for which a delivery date has yet to be determined. And this country has deals for to 76 million doses each of Medicago and Novavax vaccines, and up to 72 million doses of Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline’s vaccines. None of those three vaccines have yet to receive Health Canada authorization.
Global logistics challenges remain
Canada will need more vaccines in the near future to meet requirements for booster shots that provincial health authorities are beginning to recommend. That’s despite a call from the World Health Organization for wealthy countries to delay dispensing third doses to their populations until more people in poorer countries can get their first shots. One problem with the WHO’s directive is that it fails to take into account the special handling and low-temperature requirements of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. “They don’t have the infrastructure in place — the transportation infrastructure, the storage infrastructure, and that really works against them,” Dr. Gillen said of poorer countries in places like Africa. “There’s no question at all about that.”