CENTRO INTERNAZIONALE STUDI CONTAINERS
ANNO XXXVIII - Numero OTTOBRE 2020
IS IT POSSIBLE TO TRANSPORT VACCINES FOR COVID-19 BY RAIL?
Although Europe is making no move to buy Chinese vaccines,
cooperation between China and Europe in the fight against the
pandemic is inevitable, so are the large cross-border shipments of
vaccines. However, while discussing the progress of vaccine
research, the more important challenge has been overlooked: how to
transport and distribute the vaccine around the world? This was
noted by Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck, in an inter-view at
As a perishable commodity, vaccines are usually transported by
air. However, in the current situation of the COVID-19 pande-mic,
airlines have to scale down their operations due to flight
restrictions and a severe decrease of passengers. With most
aero-planes grounded for an extended period, the global air network
has been hard hit. According to the International Air Transport
Association (IATA), providing one dose of vaccine to each of the
world's 7.8 billion people would require 8,000 Boeing 747 cargo
planes. Moreover, the cost of transporting vaccines would skyrocket
due to the strict demands of the cold chain and the volatility of
the international freight market. Inevitably, there comes a global
problem of who will pay for the high cost of vaccines.
Could it be done?
With air freight restrictions, is it possible for railways,
especially the China-Europe Express, to support the efficient
operation of the vaccine supply chain, just as they do with other
Vaccine transport requires temperature-controlled equipment.
Given the instability of RNA, if a temperature limit is exceeded,
the vaccine will degrade. Vaccines developed by different
insti-tutions have different temperature upper limits for storage
and transport. Strong real-time monitoring capabilities are also
requi-red to ensure the integrity of the vaccine during transport.
Mo-reover, specially trained staff is also critical, as the loading,
un-loading and transportation of vaccines are notoriously
error-tolerant. Skilled professionals who are sensitive to time and
temperature are needed.
Cold chain transport on the China-Europe Express
The China-Europe Express started a cold chain transport
busi-ness in 2015. Cities near the border in the northeast and
north-west are using the cold chain (temperature-controlled
transport) to export perishable products, such as fruits and
vegetables, to Russia and other countries. Additionally, inland
cities use ther-mo-tanks to transport flowers and seedlings, as well
as tempera-ture-critical IT products in the winter. After the
gradual lifting of Russian transit restrictions, European food, wine
and dairy pro-ducts have also entered the Chinese market on cold
chain, parti-cularly with the China-Europe Express.
However, the development of the cold chain on the New Silk Road
is still at an initial stage. On a technical level, China's railway
uses 45-foot diesel-electric integrated reefer containers of
international standard. Inside the containers, temperature con-trol
ranges from -29 °C to +27 °C. In 2016, China's railway
developed the 40-foot BX1K reefer container, in which the
tem-perature can be as low as -25 °C. The technology that is
mainly applied is controlled atmosphere transportation. It keeps the
transported goods, such as vegetables and fruits, at the lower or
intermediate levels of the ideal temperatures. Nevertheless, these
technologies are not as developed as the advanced electronic storage
ones in Europe.
At the operational level, the cold-chain logistics of the
China-Europe Express is not sufficient yet. A complete chain
consists of temperature control and insulation, cold-chain
warehousing, cold chain transportation, cold chain loading and
unloading, cold chain information control, and, finally, cold chain
quarantine. At present, the services provided by the China-Europe
Express trains are mainly limited to cold chain transportation and
have not yet involved other fields.
Possibility of transporting vaccines on trains
Although rail transport showed remarkable resilience during the
epidemic and largely maintained the functioning of the global supply
chain, these limitations still put some obstacles on the
cross-border transport of vaccines. Firstly, the temperature
con-trol of the vaccines, during storage and transportation, cannot
be guaranteed. Different neocon vaccines can withstand diverse
upper-temperature limits. In general, there is a belief that
apply-ing a storage environment of -80 degrees to different vaccines
can be feasible. In Zhengzhou, for example, where the cold chain
logistics is well developed, the frozen warehouse can only reach the
storage temperature required for common fruits and vegetables.
Subsequently, storing vaccines means that special warehouses
have to be constructed on a large scale. Furthermore, in transit,
the temperature threshold of the container obviously cannot meet the
survival needs of all the vaccines. Nowadays, air freight mainly
uses a special portable vaccine cooler. Once thawed, the vaccines
can only remain active in the cooler for 5 to 14 days, which is a
considerable challenge for the transit time of rail freight.
Maintenance and staff
Secondly, frequently used refrigerators on the China-Europe
Express facilitate the braking for the chiller with diesel fuel and
winter antifreeze diesel fuel. The service points for chiller
main-tenance and refuelling along the China-Europe route are located
in large transit change stations, such as Malaszewicz, Alashan-kou,
and Khorgos. If there is a need for maintenance and refuel-ling
during transit, there would be rarely available help at hand.
Finally, the experience of China-Europe Express trains on the
transport of vaccines is not rich enough. Transportation of
bio-pharmaceutical products between China and Europe is still on the
testing stage, and it is difficult for ordinary freight workers to
acquire the professional knowledge of vaccine transport and
skillfully apply it to practice in such a short period. It also
needs time to ensure that nothing goes wrong with all the involved
parties during transit. Such a hastily formed vaccine supply chain
for emergency purposes may not be able to handle the task.
European Silk Road Summit 2020
Do you want to hear more about the cold chain or
temperature-controlled transport on the New Silk Road? It is one of
the topics on the program of the European Silk Road Summit 2020. On
10 and 11 November the online edition of this event takes pla-ce.
The impact of the pandemic, the current volumes and the forecasts
for the year to come are other topics on the program-me. Have a look
here or register here.
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