Is Shipping Covid-19 Vaccines by Rail Freight a Solution
Being a perishable, temperature-sensitive commodity, vaccines are normally shipped by air. Amidst an ongoing pandemic in its second year, global rollout is the key to controlling the virus but airlines have been forced to scale down operations. This is mainly due to a significant decline in passenger traffic and flight restrictions.
With hundreds of planes grounded for months, virtually all airlines have been hard hit. But even operating at full capacity, 8,000 Boing 747 cargo planes would be needed to deliver vaccines globally to each of the world’s 7.8 billion people. Not only this but shipping costs will increase substantially due to the current volatile state of the freight market and the strict cold chain requirements. The question of who will pay to ship vaccines is becoming a global problem. Railway freight could be one of the solutions to aid the global vaccine delivery effort but are we there yet?
Feasibility of Using Railway Freight
Given the current restrictions on air freight, using the railways to aid the operation of the vaccine supply chain is one possible solution. There are several obstacles to this, however. One is the instability of RNA vaccines which have different temperature requirements for storage and distribution. Shipping also requires advanced real-time monitoring capabilities to preserve the integrity of vaccine doses. Additionally, specially trained staff is needed for the transportation, uploading, and loading of shipments.
The China – Europe Express
The China – Europe Express has been involved in cold chain transport since 2015. Cities in the northwest and northeast use temperature-controlled transport to ship vegetables, fruits, and other perishable commodities to Russia and other countries. Thermo-tanks have been also used to ship IT products, seedlings, and flowers. Yet, the development of a full-scale cold chain is still in a nascent stage. Temperature control inside the containers varies from -29 ℃ to +27 ℃. Controlled atmosphere transportation is mainly used to keep commodities at the intermediate or lower temperature ranges. Vaccines, on the other hand, are sensitive to temperature variations and require more advanced capabilities. A related problem is the fact that the China – Europe Express has little experience shipping vaccines. The delivery of biopharmaceutical products between Europe and China is still in an initial testing stage.
Another solution that has been proposed is to load vaccine shipments into rail-born reefers. The railway industry in Europe has extensive experience with specialist cargo. The scope of the global project and the urgency to complete it are major challenges. What experts say is that we already have the reefers but they are simply not enough.
Using railway freight for integrated transport is one solution that has been proposed in Great Britain. Two deep-water ports are connected with freight rail terminals at Southampton and London Gateway. Vaccines can be imported from Europe via short sea services and then shipped by rail. The idea is to utilize specialist freight operations and super-refrigeration facilities for land transport.