Developing, testing and getting approval for the various new COVID-19 vaccines in less than a year was a miracle, but the logistical feat of manufacturing and distributing hundreds of millions of doses to Americans could be equally challenging — especially since some of the medicine needs to be stored at 70 degrees below zero.
“It is going to be the ‘COVID cold chain,’” Mike Kucharski, co-owner of JKC Trucking in Chicago, told Karen Webster in a recent interview. “Even though we’ve hauled vaccines before, what’s going to be different is that they’re going to want to distribute this vaccine in very big amounts very quickly.”
He said that getting the job done will require all hands on deck by the nation’s small, medium, large and independent truckers — especially since the job will need to be expedited and will require special handling.
“I’m positive [vaccine makers] Pfizer and Moderna are going to throw a lot of money at truckers to haul this product,” Kucharski predicted. But he added that “obviously, it’s not going to be like a load of bread. It’s going to be much more complicated.”
Still, Kucharski said that having the opportunity to work on a big, high-paying job after a year of pandemic-related turmoil will be a much-welcomed change for the industry. “All the truckers are going to jump on this, because it’s been a bad year with the rates,” he predicted.
The Cold-Chain Vacuum
That might be a godsend for the trucking industry, but Kucharski said the scope and scale of the vaccine’s logistical rollout will require a fair share of learning and consequences.
“In my opinion, it’s going to force a vacuum — and it’s going to pull away trucks from the cold supply chain, which is used for food distribution,” he said.
Kucharski said half of JKC’s business normally involves food service to restaurants, casinos, hotels and conferences, which basically all went away when everything shut down. But he said the other half covers grocery and retail — which has seen an uptick, but not nearly enough to cover the other half.
“So what we have now is a big hole, and we need to make our money,” he said.
Although the federal Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) helped JKC survive the downturn without cutting wages or staff, Kucharski said that money is now gone. And whatever volume had started to build up is beginning to drop again as states impose new restrictions on businesses (especially bars and restaurants) as COVID-19 cases surge.
Physical Capacity Vs. Human Capacity
Clearly, JKC and other cold-chain trucking companies will be eager to take on new work, and Kucharski said that assembling the trucks and trailers needed to handle vaccine distribution won’t be the problem.
“The physical assets themselves are easy,” he said. “The trucks and trailers — you could run out and buy some. [But] putting the bodies into those trucks — the truck drivers — that’s where the scare is.”
Kucharski said such a labor shortage has plagued the trucking industry for years. “When they start unloading the full capacity of these vaccines, that’s going to cause suction in the market,” he said. “We’ll run out [of trucker capacity] very quickly, just as we have in the past. Like right now — right before Christmas — capacity ran out for [truckers] because there just wasn’t enough.”
A Truckload Of Money
With vaccine distribution just getting underway, Kucharski is still gathering information as to what drug companies expect and need from trucking companies to pull off the endeavor.
He said typical food-grade refrigerator trucks run at minus 5 degrees, which means they need special additional packaging, dry ice and GPS-linked temperature sensors to prolong shelf life for the trip. That will also ensure that the product is optimally maintained along the way.
Kucharski added that security will also be an issue because “these loads are going to be so high-value — I assume a truckload of COVID vaccines will be worth as much as a truckload of money, or maybe more. So, we wonder if we are going to need some kind of security … like when you pick up the money at the mint.”
A Long, Complicated Job
Clearly, there will be many months of heavy demand for the vaccines until the world reaches some level of herd immunity. Estimates for the United States alone project the need for far more than 100 million doses before that happens.
And as much as everyone wants the vaccine as soon as possible, Kucharski said that Americans need to be realistic.
“There’s a lot of people out there” who are essential workers, he said, noting that there are 1.8 million long-distance truck drivers alone. Kucharski said that “unless they figure out how to produce it in huge batches, I think [the distribution process] is going to take over 12 months.”