In depth: carrying the hope of the nation

The inside story behind one of the most awe-inspiring feats of logistics planning and delivery in UK history was shared from the Cold Chain Live! conference main stage when Movianto UK president Paul Wilkinson revealed the challenges and successes of the cold storage and distribution of the UK’s Covid vaccines. Cold Chain News reports

The crises of the past three years have shown so much about the resilience and innovation within the cold chain industry. There is no better example than the fantastic success of the temperature-controlled storage and distribution of the Covid vaccines achieved in the face of extreme adversity and indescribable pressure.

Movianto, a healthcare logistics distribution company working across the UK and in other European countries, was already providing the storage and supply for the UK’s childhood vaccines and parts of the yearly flu vaccine programme, and it was selected as the government’s partners for this high-stakes project. Paul Wilkinson joined the Movianto team in June 2020, and this first opportunity for our industry to hear the inside story from Paul certainly did not disappoint in its insight, honesty and emotional response from the audience.  

The first task was deciphering the requirements that might be needed with the limited information from the various different companies developing the different vaccines. Paul explained: “They all needed a cold chain route to market, but what we didn’t understand was what the volumes were going to be, and we didn’t really understand what the spread temperature range was going to be.”
The Movianto team was reasonably confident there was going to be a -75oC vaccine so they went to market quickly to start procuring -75oC freezers. This paid off when the first vaccine to be approved was Pfizer vaccine, a -75oC vaccine.

Paul described the speed at which the dedicated vaccine centre was prepared: “The dedicated vaccine centre, which I can now tell you was in Lutterworth, that took 11 weeks to fit out.”
A significant number of -75oC freezers was vital for operating at speed: “Because of the ultra-low temperature, when you do a freezer pick and you physically open the freezer door, you have 60 seconds in which to do the pick and then to close the freezer door. The freezer then can’t be opened for another hour and a half.”

Paul explained that while the Moderna vaccine’s -20oC temperature requirement avoided that particular challenge, this vaccine actually proved to be the more complex to distribute: “With the -75 you can just whack a load of dry ice around it and that will keep it good for 36 hours. Trying to keep something at -20 was a lot more difficult.”

The urgency of getting vaccines into people’s arms when they first came available was intense, which is reflected in the scale of Movianto’s operations at that time. To run this operation the business needed an additional 430 people on top of its normal activity. Paul says: “In the first few months we were distributing somewhere in the region of 2.1 million doses a day. That was tough, especially when you have the complexities around the picking and packing at these ultra-low temperatures.”

Paul Wilkinson, UK president, Movianto

Paul adds: “Everything had to be done at breakneck speed. We were working in a political environment that, if I said to you it was somewhat chaotic, I think you would understand that as quite an understatement. The whole direction of the programme was changing from hour to hour.”
In total more than 151million doses have now been given to people in the UK, with 480,000 kilos of dry ice used in packing, despite shortages meaning that at times Movianto were struggling to get hold of dry ice. But the project has gone beyond these UK requirements, with vaccines sent far and wide from the Falklands to India too for the UK Government’s vaccine donation programme.

The urgency of getting vaccines into people’s arms when they first came available was intense, which is reflected in the scale of Movianto’s operations at that time

Reflecting on the success of the project, Paul emphasises the importance of teamwork between Movianto and the Government and NHS agencies involved, and the motivation of the Movianto workforce. He adds: “There was no need to engage people into this project, they were already way ahead of you in terms of wanting to make this work.”

A notable message from Paul is that this project has shown that delivering a solution without the constraints of commercialisation didn’t mean that it became the most expensive solution: “It’s the first time in my career that I’ve been told – just deliver a solution, and you’d better be sure that it works. There was never any consideration about costs. But what we ended up delivering was an extremely cost-effective solution. Having the ability to be free of those restraints I think it made people come up with some really quite imaginative ideas about how we could set this structure up.”
As the Covid vaccine programme has evolved, so has Movianto’s work and they have been working on the booster programmes at the moment ready for the winter. And in a world still reeling from the Covid pandemic, it is reassuring to know that the business is looking to the unknowns of the future: “We are already investing and preparing for what might be next.”

Hear more from Paul Wilkinson on the Cold Chain Podcast, where he tells the story of how the Movianto team planned and delivered the logistics that made the Covid vaccination programme possible. 

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