DP World brings COVID vaccines to the UK for free

Port operator DP World has made an offer to transit COVID-19 vaccines for free into the UK. It offers to do this through their quaysides and their subsidiary P&O Ferries. The offer is widely reported in the UK press, at the same time as distribution has begun under military-level security. The vaccine, developed by Pfizer-BioNtech in Belgium, requires cryogenic cold-chain transportation. It has been suggested that rail mounted super-cool reefers could be used for reliable dispersal to inland vaccination centres.

Southampton and London Gateway could become the coolest ports in the UK, if the government takes up the offer from DP World, the operator of both facilities. The Dubai-headquartered deep-water port company has said it will import coronavirus vaccines for free to the UK. However, the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine requires to be stored at minus seventy degrees to ensure its viability. The DP World offer would utilise existing super-refrigeration facilities, and potentially specialist rail freight operations.

Ready to support the nation

The UK is the first country in the world to begin immunising the entire population. The London government has already purchased 40 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine, which requires two shots for immunisation. Bringing that into the UK is a challenge for the logistics industry, to which the port operator has already responded. In a widely reported statement, DP World has said it will play a part, regardless of reward. “We stand ready to support the Government in getting all the necessary vaccines into the UK”, they said. “What’s more, we are willing to do this work for free should we be asked to do so, to help play our part in getting the UK through the pandemic as fast as possible.”

So far, around 800,000 doses have been distributed to secret locations across the UK, under strict security. That though is only the beginning. To complete the immunisation project, the UK will require around one hundred times more doses. It is likely that the entire logistics chain will stretched to cope – and that’s just the UK.

Air-freight conference debates distribution

While rail freight is in the frame to provide secure ground transportation, there is little doubt that the intercontinental requirements will to a large extent be met by the air freight sector. The logistics challenge is, by all accounts, enormous. Although some vaccines, such as the Oxford vaccine being developed in the UK, can be transported with only commercial-level refrigeration, the quantities required are staggering. Manufacture is likely to be, at least initially, concentrated in the developed world, with distribution around the world a daunting task.

Next week, 17-18 December, a specially convened conference will bring together medical and logistics specialists, together with stakeholders from around the world. ProMedia’s Air Freight Conference 2020, being held online, is the first interactive opportunity since distribution and immunisation began. The two-day event is bringing delegates from around the world to resolve issues, including cold chain maintenance and warehouse robotics.

The rail freight options at conference

Putting vaccines consignments into rail-born reefers is also part of the conference programme. Technically, the rail sector is well suited to dealing with specialist cargo in secure circumstances. However, the scope of the worldwide project remains a challenge. “The containers are there, but they are not enough”, says Will Verhees, sales manager at KLG Europe, the Dutch-based intercontinental logistics managers.

“Much more is needed before the conditioned transport chain is a mature market.” As one of the pioneers in transporting conditioned goods over rail, Verhees will be delivering a lecture at the conference for delegates with a stake in the rail freight industry. There is more information here.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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