A look behind the scenes of our vaccine logistics: “These are the transports of our lives”

A look behind the scenes of our vaccine logistics: “These are the transports of our lives”

A few months ago, our red logo appeared on thousands of television screens in Europe: H.Essers had been commissioned to distribute Pfizer’s first corona vaccines across the continent. Within a time span of four hours, we delivered those vaccines to all 29 countries. And all on the same day. A beautiful and historic first and, above all, the result of meticulous preparation. But what does it all entail? We take a look behind the scenes and sound out a few employees on how they managed to streamline the distribution of the vaccines. Olivia Spaas (Manager Operations LLP Pharma – Intramar), Niels van Berkum (Specialist Security Transport), Jean-Paul Claesen (Fleet Officer Pharma) and Patrick Op ‘t Roodt (Transport Manager Pharma) are happy to share their experiences.

Setting up a large-scale vaccine project is a joint effort. What was the role of your team?

Patrick: “From the very beginning of this project, our planning department has been outlining the vaccine transports and overseeing the implementation. We deliberately worked with a small group of people, because the complexity of the customer’s demands required us to be able to respond quickly. We prepared a transport planning completely separately from our regular? operations, working with a Central Core Team to avoid overburdening the other planning teams.”

Olivia: “Intramar is a separate entity within H.Essers where the orders from pharmaceutical customers such as Pfizer come in. We make sure that they are sent to the right carrier, together with all the necessary instructions for transport. Intramar has taken charge of the operational part of the vaccine project and is the first point of contact for Pfizer.”

Niels: “For the vaccine project, we took care of the security requirements. This started with auditing selected carriers, but also involved, for example, contacting the local police in each destination country to determine the safest routes.”

Jean-Paul: “I am responsible for the daily operation of the Pharma vehicles, as well as the training and planning of the drivers in this segment. For vaccine distribution, our team selected the vehicles and put together the team of drivers.”

A unique project like this is bound to be challenging. How did you experience this?

Olivia: “The deadlines were tight and we were not always sure what was possible. And then, of course, there was Brexit. Together with Pfizer, we determined what the transport requirements were and how we would communicate about the orders. The temperature monitoring of the transports was a crucial part of the job. The vaccine project consisted of four parts: transport to European countries and airports, the European Launch on 26 December, distribution to Belgian and Luxembourg hospitals, and reverse logistics (returning empty softboxes and the temperature loggers in those boxes). This was a challenging project on all levels, but fortunately there was a great cooperation between the different H.Essers departments. Our team members worked around the clock and even put aside Christmas and holiday plans to keep the rollout running smoothly.”

Jean-Paul: “One of Pfizer’s requirements was that there should be two drivers in each vehicle, both for safety and continuity. The drivers would also have to drive at night and during the weekend to meet the flight schedules of the various airports. All the drivers also had to obtain an Aircago certificate, as the trucks would have to be driven right up to the aircraft to unload the vaccines. And of course, we were also responsible for the immaculate condition of our fleet. For additional challenges, such as Brexit and the strict corona checks at the border, we prepared ourselves and our planning to the best of our ability.”

Niels: “Our priority was to organise the security escorts. This required a great deal of flexibility, because the slightest change in the production and delivery schedules meant that we had to modify the security plans. This made the start of the project very stressful for our team. In addition, specific documentation was required for each transport and destination country. In order to avoid any problems or ambiguities along the way, we created a comprehensive document for each route, clearly explaining the steps each transport had to follow in order to meet all requirements.”

Patrick: “Our main goal was to be able to guarantee 100% quality and capacity. In addition, it was very clear from the start that this project would generate a lot of media attention, so the pressure was high. We wrote completely new procedures for this project, trained core crews, reviewed and adjusted the Control Tower set-up, expanded our crew capacities, provided Aircargo training for our drivers… and all that in just a few weeks’ time. But failure was not an option – as a team we were determined to make this project a success. And the result was worth it: on 26 December, we simultaneously delivered the vaccines to no fewer than 29 countries.”

What lessons have you and your colleagues learned so far that you can use in the rest of the project?

Niels: “It’s better not to request security escorts too early. If there are any changes, you have a lot of phone calls to make to get everything back on track.”

Jean-Paul: “Teamwork is still the key word in this global enterprise. The number of people working extremely hard to control the pandemic is immense. Security services that accompany us, our own Control Tower in Romania that monitors every Pharma trailer, our Pharma drivers, our warehouse staff… The fact that we can contribute, from Genk, to combating a virus that has taken the world hostage is very special.”

Patrick: “I have learned that in vaccine production, last-minute changes are unavoidable. This will probably continue to be the case. The flexibility that H.Essers is known for will therefore continue to be necessary, to allow for a seamless continuity of the vaccine supply chain.”

Olivia: “Indeed, flexibility is key. This has been our motto from the beginning, and it will continue to be so in the future.”

What are you proud of?

Patrick: “Our strong relationship with Pfizer ensured that they fully trusted us to deliver the vaccines by road. That says a lot about our relationship with this customer. I am proud that I, together with my team, have been able to take responsibility for this. A nice Christmas present for the world.”

Niels: “Up to now, all transports have taken place without any safety problems. And that is quite special, considering the safety risks they entail. We went for it together and we succeeded. That gives me great satisfaction.”

Olivia: “Those simultaneous deliveries was a goosebump moment! Nice to see the work of our teams come together like that. But once again, we maintain a delivery performance of no less than 100%. A fine piece of work, all thanks to the smooth cooperation between the Pharma, High Value, General Cargo and LLP segments. And not forgetting the IT department. These are the transports of our lives, of that I have no doubt.”

Jean-Paul: “We were very happy to accept the request of EU Commissioner Von der Leyen to deliver the vaccines simultaneously, but I could not have imagined at the time that I would be personally delivering the very first vaccines in Belgium. That was at UZ Leuven. Together with director Joris Mertens, I was interviewed about this and my words “we bring hope” were used in the TV news of Belgium’s major broadcasters. A moment I think back on with pride. We really did bring hope, and we still do. Together.”