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Covid vaccine rollout: are logistics companies prepared?

Jack Muhs, regional president of FedEx Express, MEISA, explains the elements of the vaccine-supply chain from manufacturer to delivery in SA.

NOMPU SIZIBA: International logistics and parcel-delivery player FedEx says it’s ready to distribute Covid-19 vaccines in sub-Saharan Africa. It has already begun its work of distribution of the same within the United States – which is rolling out the vaccine countrywide. The South African government has already indicated that some 1.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine are set to hit our shores over January and February, with a view to vaccinating healthcare workers in both the private and public sectors initially,

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Well, to tell us more about the distribution task that lies ahead, I’m joined on the line by Jack Muhs. He’s the regional president of FedEx Express for the Middle East, Indian Subcontinent and Africa. Thanks very much Jack, for joining us. Just give us a sense of what it is that FedEx is doing to prepare for vaccine distribution on the continent.

JACK MUHS: It is important for everybody to understand that FedEx has been in the business for nearly 50 years now. We have over 680 airplanes. We service 220 countries. We do 18 million shipments per day. So I can say that we’ve been preparing for this type of role for nearly 50 years.

But, specifically to Africa, we do have our own FedEx 777 that flies into Johannesburg once a week. We also have an extensive road network in South Africa, where we can distribute to the countries in southern Africa – Botswana Namibia, Zambia, Malawi and the rest. So we have the capabilities to deliver.

And also we work very closely not just with government agencies, but also with the pharmaceutical manufacturers of the vaccine, understanding what their requirements are so that we can move the vaccines effectively throughout the world.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Speaking to that, Jack, we’ve heard how important temperature is in ensuring that vaccines don’t get spoiled. Are you having to invest in delivery capsules, or mechanisms that will ensure that the temperature is right?

JACK MUHS: We’ve worked very closely with the pharmaceutical manufacturers, the vaccine manufacturers, and they have designed a lot of their own packaging, which is a key component. But FedEx also has cold-chain solutions. So we have what we call thermal blankets, which is an insulated blanket we can put over our packages to keep the temperature. We also work with companies like Envirotainer that have dry-ice solutions. But more specifically to the Pfizer vaccine that requires the negative 70 degrees, things move according to plan over 90% of the time. So we don’t ever really have the need for [it], but we’ve invested in ultra-low temperature refrigerators, just as a contingency to make sure that we can keep the product at a safe temperature.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Now, apart from the safe part of the temperature issue, what work is being done to ensure the readiness of the supply chain to carry and deliver the vaccines?

JACK MUHS: To give you kind of a perspective of the scale of operations, I told you 220 countries serve 18 million shipments a day. But specifically since the pandemic has hit, we have moved globally more than 55 kilotonnes of personal protective equipment, which includes over two billion masks. So I mean this system, this network, has been hardened over years and it’s this sort of event that really brings the spotlight on what a great job not just the network does, but more importantly our people. We’ve been out there since the first days of Covid, delivering this personal protective equipment, delivering face masks. So a big shout out to the couriers. I’m very partial to the FedEx couriers, but to the couriers of all the delivery companies around the world, and all the people that have been categorised as essential workers in this job, who have done a tremendous job, not just in delivering protective equipment, but also keeping economies going in a very, very difficult time. So I’m in awe of the work that these guys have done and very appreciative of having a great team down in South Africa, specifically, which has worked very hard to get us ready.

NOMPU SIZIBA: So take us through the various elements of the vaccine-supply chain from manufacturer to storage, movement and delivery and so on.

JACK MUHS: I need to stay focused on the transit part of it, so I’ll give you an example of what’s gone on in the United States with Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines being distributed. We’ve been there at the origin, where we pick up the shipments. They are all labelled as to where the ultimate customer is. We will pick those up in a truck designed to handle the vaccines. It’ll move to a gateway. We call them gateway or ramp operations. That’s where the trucks meet the airplanes. It’ll go into a sort location, a major sort location. In the United States that would be like going from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Memphis. Think of in this part of the world going from Johannesburg, South Africa, up to Dubai, and then distributing throughout the world, or vice versa, going from Dubai down into Johannesburg and distributing throughout South Africa.

But once it gets to that hub, it gets sorted to an airplane to go to the final destination. It’s loaded. This all takes place in a period of – well, we’ll pick up at five o’clock, six o’clock in the afternoon, we’ll sort at midnight, we will have it out for delivery by eight o’clock the next morning. When the flight arrives it gets to a another gateway and the trucks pick it up. There it gets sorted and taken out for delivery. So, as an example, in the US we made the first delivery of the vaccine outside of Boston, Massachusetts at 6:53am. We were there before the hospital even opened.

NOMPU SIZIBA: [Chuckling] I love the way you remember – 6:53am!

JACK MUHS: Minutes are important to us.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Right. Do you have an estimated date when you’re going to begin the distribution of vaccines in earnest here on the continent, or is that still to be finalised?

JACK MUHS: Well, those decisions are made between the manufacturers and the government that’s bringing the supply in. We work with both the manufacturers and the government in order to distribute. Now, there are some great manufacturing capabilities down within South Africa, so I’m hopeful for the South African people that some of the vaccines will be eventually produced in South Africa. But that’s a decision between the manufacturers and the government. Our role is really to stay focused on transportation of the vaccines, whether they come in from international locations or whether they’re distributed domestically within South Africa. So I don’t have the dates. Those will be discussed by the government when they’re ready.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Understood. But, just in terms of the product content, is there a concern about the logistics of getting to other countries further up north, because the terrain is not very favourable?

JACK MUHS: There are always the challenges in the supply chain when you’re going to different places, but – I know I’m repeating myself – we’ve been doing this for a long time and we service those countries in Africa. So we have done it before, and we’ll do it again. We’ll partner very closely, especially in those cases with the governments, to determine how they want that product distributed. We’ll work with them and we’ll have a solution for them, so that those vaccines get distributed to where they are needed the most.

NOMPU SIZIBA: That was Jack Muhs, the regional president for FedEx Express for the Middle East, Indian Subcontinent and Africa.

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As long as the incompetent ANC government keep their sticky fingers out of the process then all will be fine. Just leave it to the private sector, they know how to do things properly.

No. But the bigger question is the corrupt ANC and Command Council prepared to procure and distribute without corruption?

Couriers are the last thing to worry about.
Worry about getting the vaccines here without corruption.
Worry about who is going to administer and keep record of the inoculations without corruption.

End of comments.

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