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The future will bring changes for temperature-controlled container rental companies.
The pandemic has ushered in a period of uncertainty with far-reaching effects. This is particularly true for air cargo. Although COVID-19 created additional need for cargo jets to move new and higher volumes of pharmaceutical products around the world, it drastically reduced the number of passenger jets available to carry that cargo.
Temperature-controlled containers are designed to travel in the lower cargo holds of passenger and cargo aircraft. The net reduction in lower hold cargo space reduces the area available to ship pharmaceuticals economically, and creates scarcity that makes shipment planning even more important.
Flight reductions in the early days of COVID-19 forced pharmaceutical companies to charter aircraft and plan larger shipments. For temperature-controlled container rental programs, that meant repositioning and conditioning containers quickly to support larger shipping volumes, and required closer coordination between our network stations, pharmaceutical companies and freight forwarders.
Many pharmaceutical companies now find themselves responding to COVID-19 by supporting clinical trials for therapeutics, making testing kits, and supporting vaccine development. The volume of this work is sure to increase as clinical trials grow in number, volume of participants, and global reach. Testing kits present a unique challenge for shipping. Finished test kits are bulky, and current air freight capacity doesn’t support shipping them in significant volumes around the world. Instead, we’re seeing countries import high-quality reagents from South Korea and then manufacturing and packaging the finished test kit in their home regions.
These reagents require frozen shipment. They could be shipped cheaply in low-grade packaging made of cardboard, polystyrene, and dry ice. However, there’s a limit to the amount of dry ice that can be safely transported by air, because the material poses a potential asphyxiation risk to the air crew. Due to decreased air cargo capacity, we’re seeing companies use more efficient packaging with phase-change material with vacuum insulation. The demand for Pelican’s rental products with these materials requires us to reposition many of the containers to South Korea, so they can be used to ship reagents around the world.
The impact of reduced airline flight schedules may create prolonged industry disruptions that change the way that pharmaceutical companies ship products. It is likely that passenger flight schedules will take significant time to return to 2019 levels, and many airlines are already talking about retiring larger aircraft earlier than planned. This may mean smaller, more fuel-efficient aircraft and less cargo capacity to ship pharmaceutical products. This scenario could push pharmaceutical companies to vary modes of transportation, and to rely less on air cargo, and diversify into other modes such as rail, sea freight, or road.
We may also see scenarios similar to what’s happening with COVID test kits now. Companies could choose to ship products in bulk and use in-country or regional fill and seal labeling and packaging contractors to reduce the volume of product shipped by air.
Whatever the scenario, it will mean changes for temperature-controlled container rental companies. It will be interesting to see how they adapt to these changes, and how they address repositioning and network balancing capabilities.
Vol. 33, No. 6
When referring to this article, please cite it as D. Hyde, "What's Next in Global Transportation for Clinical Trial Logistics" BioPharm International 33(6)(2020).