Uruguay’s Covid vaccine distribution model: “A wise move”

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Uruguay’s Covid vaccine distribution model: “A wise move”.


Uruguay was the last country in South America to start its Covid-19 vaccine distribution, but thanks to an efficient distribution model, which used the airport for the storage and handling of the vaccines, the country has now vaccinated 78.6% of its population. Bruno Guella, CEO of Latin America Cargo City explains how.

ACW: Can you explain the model that Aeropuerto Internacional de Carrasco has adopted for Covid vaccine logistics?

Guella: Carrasco International Airport is the main entry door to Uruguay for airfreight, and through our cargo terminal we handle 100% of the air cargo that comes into the country. As such, even before the vaccines were a reality we started thinking and developing a strategy to guarantee the delivery of vaccines to the country as soon as they became available.

We were aware we had a key role in the logistics process, which is why we joined forces with all the actors in the chain, and led the development of a strategy to guarantee the fast, safe and efficient distribution of the vaccines to Uruguay.

We developed and executed what we called a lean logistics last-mile distribution model strategy for the Covid-19 vaccines. Its key characteristic and value proposition was to use our airport facilities to store, prepare and distribute vaccines directly from the airport to the vaccination centres and final patients all over the country.

To be able to do this we first enhanced the capabilities of our pharma hub located within airport premises, adding modern ultra-freezers to preserve the cold and ultra-cold chain, and training our staff in the correct handling of these products according to the standard operating procedures established by the pharmaceutical companies.

At the state-of-the-art pharma hub facilities in the airport, the shipments were split into smaller conditional thermal boxes and delivered to vaccination centres all over the country through a multi-level distribution network to reach the final patient in record time.

ACW: How has this model impacted Uruguay’s Covid vaccination efforts?

Guella: The strategy developed was instrumental in Uruguay’s Covid-19 vaccination efforts. Even though the country has long experience in mass vaccination plans, this one in particular posed unprecedented challenges due to the specific characteristics of the vaccines themselves, as well as the need to act faster than ever.

The strategy adopted proved to be a success and allowed Uruguay to go from being the last country in the region to start vaccinating to vaccinating 70% of its population in less than six months.

The logistics model developed, and the strong synergies achieved within the entire logistics chain helped reduce delivery times for vaccines shipments from the moment they arrive at the airport to delivery to any point in the country to 10 hours, which saved at least a day in the supply chain.

In a recent Pharma.Aero case study of the process, which showcased Uruguay as an example the words of the Minister of Public Health of Uruguay, Dr. Daniel Salinas, best summarized the success of the strategy when he said: “It was a wise move to choose the airport for the storage and handling of the Covid-19 vaccines, which require ultra-cold conditions. It has allowed for quick implementation and avoided cold chain failures.”

ACW: Who was responsible for the planning of the vaccine operation?

Guella: This was an operation that spanned continents and that required the involvement and commitment of many different people, companies and authorities. Each of them was instrumental in its success and indeed the entire process would not have been possible had it not been for the strong synergies achieved.

Different actors in the logistics chain had been working on their own to identify the challenges, think of strategies and plan for a moment that was a turning point in the pandemic. It was only when all these efforts came together and we formed a cooperative multi-task team that involved the public and private sectors that we were able to really move forward, solve the complexities of the operation and eventually put in place an innovative and successful operation.

ACW: Will the Airport itself invest more in its pharma facilities?

Guella: It is part of our core strategy to enhance our pharma facilities and capabilities, and to consolidate our role as a logistics hub for the region. We have recently inaugurated a new, modern pharmaceutical warehouse at Carrasco International and we are already in the process of expanding the pharma facilities again in order to comply with new client needs.

Our pharma hub is a key value proposition for our multimodal logistics free zone, the only one located inside an airport in the region. Our second pharma warehouse will help us meet growing global customer needs, doubling the existing capacity in the +15+25 and +2+8 temperature ranges and providing GMP-compliant conditioning areas and premium office space available for client business and administrative activities.

ACW: For how long to you expect the vaccine operations to continue?

Guella: We have learnt to be cautious in making predictions when it comes to pandemic-related issues. However, data shows that COVID-19 will eventually become endemic which will mean that vaccine operations might eventually become part of our yearly operations. It would of course depend on the industry itself and on the country of origin of the vaccines so there are many factors involved. We will have to wait to see how they develop. As for now, we have signed a contract with the Ministry of Health that ensures the operation until, at least, December 2022.

ACW: How does it feel to be a major player in Uruguay’s fight against Covid?

Guella: When we first started developing our pharma infrastructure and capabilities, we had seen potential in the industry and a trajectory of growth. We did not predict it becoming instrumental in the country’s fight against COVID-19 so we are immensely proud of the work developed, and energised to keep playing an important role in the country’s logistic industry.

ACW: What have been some key takeaways from this effort?

Guella: There are many takeaways from this effort that range from more technical aspects such as the importance of investing in first-rate modern equipment and guaranteeing complete alignment with standard operating procedures, to softer skills related aspects such as the importance of team work, commitment and dedication to our job – from the most macro strategic issues to the micro details that can make or break operating of such a large scale.

For us everything starts with the question “Why not?” We thrive when we think out of the box and step out of our comfort zone. Every time we prove to ourselves we can do whatever we set to do it encourages us to keep doing this in the future.

If I had to pick one aspect of this operation in particular, I would highlight private-public collaboration and co-ordination, with one shared mission, a team of dedicated people and a full commitment to the task ahead: a lesson that we will always carry with us moving forward.