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Cover image of hand holding vial of medicine, for Routeique blog on optimizing pharmaceutical distribution
RouteiqueJan 19, 2022 3:22:00 PM6 min read

Optimizing Pharmaceutical Distribution

Optimizing Pharmaceutical and Vaccine Distribution

Getting life-saving resources where they need to be on time has always been a topic of discussion in the supply chain space, but never before has it been as relevant as when transporting COVID-19 vaccines.


Key Takeaways:

  • Challenges to vaccine distribution include storage, lead times, and cold chain compliance.

  • Strategies to optimize distribution includes matching supply and demand, optimizing allocations and eliminating secondary deliveries, developing 14-day forecasts, and enhancing cold chain solutions.


The living nature of vaccines requires that they are transported at the perfect temperature and as quickly as possible. If transported improperly, the vaccinations can become inert and unusable.

Something as vital as vaccination to a deadly virus should be transported and stored as optimally as possible to avoid any loss of product.

The pandemic brought with it a strong focus on the supply chain in general. It became apparent that the hyper-focus on extremely lean, just-in-time operations resulted in limited resiliency, and left almost no room for disruptions. Fortunately, businesses have learned from their vulnerabilities being made clear, and have therefore been able to adapt to their shortcomings. 


Challenges In Pharmaceutical or Vaccine Distribution

Vaccinations, much like a majority of grocery products, are perishable items and therefore they must be transported under a very specific set of guidelines.



One major challenge facing the vaccination supply chain is the location of storage versus the vaccination application site. Transporting vaccinations needs to be done in as timely a manner as possible in distribution methods that can maintain the appropriate temperature. This can be costly depending on where the location of the vaccination site is in relation to when the vaccine is being appropriately stored. This is less of an issue in larger cities where there are ample warehouse freezers to store vaccinations. The issue really sets in when examining smaller localities where there may not be a warehouse freezer for quite some distance causing a need for long-haul trucking to be done quickly in freezer trucks.


Lead Times

Another challenge for the vaccination supply chain is the high frequency of incidental lead time increases. Acquisition choices can be difficult for something like a vaccination. It can be hard to determine the demand and adjust the supply accordingly. This means that often, vaccines sit in warehouses for much longer than they should due to low demand causing major losses in product.


Cold Chain Compliance

One of the most significant issues facing the vaccination supply chain is cold chain compliance. An already hot topic in the supply chain space, it became all the more relevant during the pandemic. Keeping things cool is the most important part of transporting many vaccines, and there are a few ways to make sure goods are at their perfect temperature.    


Keeping it Cool: The Cold Chain for Vaccines 

A supply chain that works with temperature-sensitive goods is known as a cold chain. So any supply chain storing, or distributing vaccinations could be considered a cold chain. Being cold chain compliant means having that extra knowledge and going that extra mile to be sure that the products in transit are kept at the correct temperature and humidity.

“We got our start in food service, so we’ve been working in cold chain for a long time, but we’re currently seeing this (vaccination) as a really high-growth area”, says Kaitlin Mercier, our VP Client Success. 

Tools like the Routeique Vehicle Intelligence Hub in conjunction with the in truck sensors allow customers to keep an eye on the temperature of their precious cargo, ensuring that the cargo arrives at its destination in peak condition.  

Any disruption to the cold chain can result in costly complications, even more so than how complications can affect a non-temperature sensitive supply chain. If temperature changes occur unknowingly, then huge product waste and costs can occur. Cold chains have to ensure that they have a plan in place to minimize delays and mitigate problems.


Background: Vaccine Distribution In Canada 

When thinking about the vaccine and pharmaceutical supply chains in Canada, Mckesson noted in late 2020 that the two frontrunner vaccines had to be stored and transported at frozen (negative twenty celsius), and ultra-frozen (negative eighty degrees) temperatures. 

The cold chain landscape in Canada was not entirely equipped to handle frozen and ultra-frozen pharmaceuticals at the necessary scale. A major worry was that the scale would have to be reduced in order to not overwhelm the pre-existing infrastructure, but many adaptations have been put in place to avoid any interruptions. 

As previously mentioned, demand has come into play as well. The just-in-time distribution method of the yearly flu vaccination worked in order to avoid costly product loss, but only in some provinces and cities.    


Strategies for Optimize Vaccine Distribution and Supply Chain

So, with all of that said, what are strategies that have been put in place or could be put in place in order to optimize the vaccination supply chain in Canada?


Planning Is the Key to Success


Match Demand to the Current Supply

Local health organizations should carefully balance available and forecasted vaccine inventory with the number of people eligible and willing to receive the vaccine. Distributors should also look to
take advantage of vaccination scheduling to better understand demand and create an effective demand plan.


Optimize Current Allocations and Eliminate Secondary Deliveries

The most efficient way that vaccines should be delivered is from manufacturers to the injection sites daily. This removes the need for depots and staging areas. This efficiency increase ends the waste of secondary transporting and optimizes allocation.


Develop Rolling 14-day Forecasts for Each Vaccine Site Based on Demand

To ensure just-in-time delivery of vaccines to the injection sites, vaccine providers should develop accurate demand forecasts of what is needed in the next 14 days. This step allows local health agencies to allocate vaccines based on demand.


Keep Vaccines at the Correct Temperature

As we’ve already talked about, the most effective and efficient way to transport the vaccine requires supply chain managers to rapidly increase their cold storage infrastructure. 

Supply chain managers also need to ensure their end-to-end temperature logging, as well as real-time monitoring and reporting of temperature, shock, and moisture. This can be accomplished using monitoring hardware and software. 

In-depth information and transparency allows time for reactive action to prevent damage and spoilage and prevent compromised goods in transit from reaching the customer.


Track and Trace

Establish metrics and modify processes based on performance
Local health agencies should define success metrics such as daily doses administered against those delivered, and the labour required per dose administered. Keeping an eye on these metrics allow supply chain managers and health officials to maintain the most efficient supply chain possible.


Ensure Product Integrity

Like many products, pharmaceuticals and vaccinations can be vulnerable to counterfeiting, tampering, contamination, and theft. Provenance and authentication is crucial, to ensure the vaccine users safety and efficacy. 
Ways that supply chain managers can work to improve provenance include:

  • sterilizing batches for easy identification
  • having proof of pick-up and delivery confirmed with an authenticated chain of custody
  • reporting that chain of custody through smart, IoT devices and applications

Following these authentication initiatives should detect any abnormalities, saving supply chain managers a lot of money on unforeseen costs caused by losses in efficacy. For that reason, having things at peak efficiency in the vaccination cold chain is one of the most important initiatives of the modern supply chain era.  


Learn More

Want to learn more about this topic? Follow us on LinkedIn for weekly roundups of supply chain news and technology. If you’re interested in learning more about cold chain technologies, used in pharmaceutical and foodservice distribution, check out our blog here.