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Coronavirus vaccination
12:01 · 28 July 2021

COVID-19 vaccines – a logistical challenge

Not only is COVID-19 vaccine manufacture and authorisation a challenge, the logistics are also complex. Find out what steps a vaccine must pass through before it can be used in a vaccine centre here.

The logistics behind the COVID-19 vaccine.

This vaccination campaign against the coronavirus is the largest that Germany has ever seen: knowing that vaccines are the most effective method to stem the pandemic and protect ourselves from COVID-19, all of the experts involved in vaccine development intensified their cooperation and improved process efficiency – without cutting back on attention to detail. This led to significant process optimisations and time savings in the development process. 

Besides vaccine development and authorisation, manufacturing and logistics, the storage and transport of vaccines presented a particular a challenge: The objective is to manufacture millions of doses of authorised vaccines, bottle and package them, organise their distribution and then transport them to the point of use. Find out what steps a vaccine dose must pass through before it is administered here: 

1. Production: How and where are COVID-19 vaccines manufactured?  

The European Commission centrally negotiates supply contracts with manufacturers of vaccines authorised in the EU for all Member States. Worldwide, several billion vaccine doses are necessary to attain the goal of herd immunity against COVID-19.

Such immense quantities require large-scale industrial production. As a result, all pharmaceutical manufacturers are striving to expand their production capacities further through cooperation and contract manufacturing. 

For instance, the company BioNTech from Mainz manufactures at several sites in cooperation with the pharmaceutical company Pfizer. Since early February 2021, the company is additionally using a manufacturing plant in Marburg to meet the high demand around the world. 

Cooperation is also taking place with other pharmaceutical companies, for instance with the French company Sanofi in Frankfurt, that handle parts of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine production.  The manufacturers of the other vaccines authorised in the EU thus far are also bringing in external partners: The US manufacturer Moderna, for instance, manufactures together with the Swiss pharmaceutical company Lonza in Visp. The German company IDT Biologika bottles vaccine batches at its factory in Dessau for the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca.

Challenges in this step:

Since the vaccines are made up of various components and ingredients, pharmaceutical companies are heavily reliant on supplies for the manufacturing process. They procure active ingredients and excipients from suppliers around the world. They therefore had to build a network of highly specialised suppliers in a very short time. Due to the rapid increase in demand for the individual components of the COVID-19 vaccines, supply bottlenecks may occur from time to time.

In addition, manufacturing is a complex process, for which not all production plants are suitable and the construction of new plants or the conversion of existing ones takes a great deal of time.

Furthermore, mRNA vaccines, such as those from BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna, are a new type of vaccine. That means that the technical expertise of factory employees and the requirements placed on production facilities also need to be expanded. Such processes also require time. Moreover, quality standards must be maintained for every single vaccine batch – all production facilities must adhere to the required criteria and standards at all times so that every single person who is vaccinated receives the same high level of protection.

2. Packaging: What do I need to know about the packaging of COVID-19 vaccines?

After manufacture, the vaccines are bottled into vials under sterile conditions and packaged – this, too, takes place in plants certified by the authorities. 

Challenges in this step:

Even the glass needed for the vials must be procured in sufficient quantities. Here a special type of glass is required that is suitable for different cooling temperatures, but will not lead to a chemical reaction when it comes into contact with the contents. Here the pharmaceutical companies employ borosilicate glass (Type 1 glass), which meets these high demands.

Once the vaccine has been bottled into individual glass vials, these are sealed and packed into special boxes that are able to keep the vials at the required constant storage temperatures in accordance with requirements. These are then readied for transport on pallets.

3. Delivery: Where do the COVID-19 vaccines go when ready?

After the vaccine is manufactured, which includes bottling and packaging, it is delivered to central locations in the EU member states.

In Germany, the vaccine doses are then transported from this central location to the Federal states (Länder). Here, the available quantities of vaccine doses are distributed according to the Federal Land’s share of the population. Each Federal Land has set up special delivery points for this purpose. This excludes the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, since that company delivers directly to the agencies designated by the Land. The Länder are responsible for the proper, safe storage and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines at local level, as well as for procuring vaccine equipment, such as syringes and hypodermic needles.

The vaccines are then delivered from the agencies designated by the Federal Länder to the vaccination centres.  A different mode of distribution exists for vaccination at doctors’ surgeries and by company doctors: With these vaccinating locations, the central location delivers the vaccine doses including equipment to pharmaceutical wholesalers, and from there on to the pharmacies.

Challenges in this step:

On account of the various vaccines’ product characteristics and requirements in terms of storage and transport, differing logistical approaches may be required.

For instance, the vaccines need to be stored and transported at differing cooling temperatures.

The differing cooling chains must also be ensured while the vials are being transported to the vaccine centres or pharmacies that supply the companies and doctors’ surgeries. The manufacturers or the logistics firms attach sensors that continually measure the temperature to the packages, so as to be able to monitor the temperature at any point in time. Even following authorisation, pharmaceutical companies continue to verify their vaccine’s stability and also assess whether less complicated transportation and storage conditions might be feasible.

4. Coronavirus vaccine: Where are vaccinations being administered?

The vaccines are transported from the Länder’s receiving points to the vaccination centres. Additionally, there are mobile vaccination teams that visit long-term care facilities, for instance. Find more information on vaccinating at vaccination centres in this article.

Delivery to doctors’ surgeries and company doctors, on the other hand, occurs through pharmaceutical wholesalers and pharmacies. Find information on coronavirus vaccination in companies here. Find out how vaccination is carried out in doctors’ surgeries here.

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