Understanding how the COVID-19 vaccine is being delivered to the world is the subject of the Universal Postal Union’s first ever podcast Voice Mail. Hosted by Ian Kerr, who for many years worked for the Australian Postal Network, Voice Mail features an in-depth interview with Thomas Ellmann, the Vice President, Life Scientist and Healthcare at Deutsche Post DHL Group.
Ellmann talks about his early career, the challenges of the job in life sciences and his role in delivering the life-saving COVID-19 vaccine globally. He explains how, as the contagion spread like wildfire, the company decided to draft a white paper released in September 2020 on the critical challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The paper led to discussions with manufacturers, governments, and NGOs.
By Autumn, DPDHL was diving into the detail with a global task force dealing with issues on successful vaccine distribution. “A year has passed since all this started, and still a lot of companies are developing new vaccines. A lot of countries are now seeing the second, third or even fourth wave of the pandemic,” added Ellmann.
Questioned about the technical requirements for delivering the vaccine, Ellmann explains that, when growing up in life science logistics, vaccines always needed to be stored and shipped at +2 to 8 degrees. Now, there are new vaccines, and because of the absence of stability data, it was said this needed to be stored long-term and transported at -70 degrees Celsius or -20 degrees Celsius.
“We basically looked at our systems in terms of capabilities to have long-term storage for -70 degrees; because of that, we invested in ultra-low freezers in a couple of different countries. We also looked at our systems and the capabilities in order to ship significant numbers of shipments with dry ice because dry ice is seen as dangerous goods, especially on a plane,” noted Ellmann.
In response, DPDHL started training people and to write standing operating procedures to document what needed to be done when preparing for the delivery of the first vaccines. “Right now we are serving all approved vaccine manufacturers here in one way or another, so actually we have learnt together with our customers to bring in place what needs to be done to have effective delivery of the vaccine,” says Ellmann.
Ellmann is also keen to stress that safety was not compromised when shipping dry ice successfully on planes. According to the Life Sciences and Healthcare expert, air-freight capacity, since planes and passengers remain grounded, remains tight. The situation, however, is different from one year ago when PPE was sourced almost solely out of China into Europe, and Africa and US where many charter flights needed to be ramped up.
Summing up his role over this tumultuous period, Ellmann tells Kerr, “We basically serve the world with vaccines and with other ancillaries needed to administer the vaccination to a patient. This has been keeping us pretty busy in the last five to six months.”
The first episode of Voice Mail can be listened to at https://www.upu.int/en/News-Media/Podcast