The COVID-19 pandemic has added complexity to global shipping logistics. There is general market disruption in industry delivery. Airline freight rates are rising as cargo capacity falls over 29% compared to 2019. At the same time, new customs restrictions have led to delays in imports. The resulting outcome is a new normal of uncertainty: will the package you ship today arrive at its destination on time? For cold chain-reliant shipments, these delays could mean spoiled product and large replacement expenses. COVID-19 may be what finally kills the cold chain.
The odds of a delayed cold chain shipment are rising. Courier services now advise customers to expect delays through customs in numerous countries due to restrictions, and these measures are not expected to end any time soon. Air freight operators are suggesting switching to air-sea or truck while USPS has temporarily stopped shipping to over 114 countries. Government-associated post has been particularly hard-hit with Japan temporarily ceasing shipments to the US via airmail, and Canadian post reporting volumes and delays normally associated with Christmas holidays. A cold chain shipment sent today is much more likely to encounter delays, spoil, and require a costly replacement.
Lyophilized products have longer shelf lives and can be stored at ambient temperatures.
Cold chain shipping has long been a life science and molecular diagnostics industry staple. Fragile antibodies and finicky enzymes traditionally do not survive at ambient temperatures, leading to a need for frozen transport. Today, this is a bigger problem than ever as most kits are dependent on some cold chain component. A surge in the popularity of loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) and CRISPR-based technology has led to even more frozen kits on the market. Lured by the advantages of ambient products and the threat of Styrofoam bans, some companies had already begun seeking out lyophilization before the pandemic arrived.
Lyophilization (AKA freeze drying) has been around for decades, but the unique challenges presented by COVID-19 may finally trigger its widespread adoption in the life sciences and molecular diagnostics industries. Lyophilized products have longer shelf lives and can be stored at ambient temperatures resulting in less write-offs and no cold storage costs in the interim. Shipping is ambient as well, so the current lack of timely freight capacity and customs delays will not harm the product. Lyophilization addresses problems occurring during shipping and shelf-life expiry in storage.
With no end in sight for COVID-19 shipping restrictions, companies that invest in lyophilization now will see a return on their investment over the duration of the pandemic and beyond. Modern lyophilization is able to overcome challenges of the past, and the turnaround time to implement the technology can be measured in weeks. Even when shipping capacity and customs eventually return to normal, the cost savings of lyophilization will still make business sense.
With no end in sight for COVID-19 shipping restrictions, companies that invest in lyophilization now will see a return on their investment over the duration of the pandemic and beyond.
Has COVID-19 killed the life science cold chain? The technology to go ambient has long been available, but until COVID-19 there was no major impetus for companies to switch. Now with global logistics in flux and companies looking to conserve cash, ambient products are a competitive advantage. We do not anticipate that many will switch back to cold chain-dependent products following the pandemic, given the cost savings that lyophilization offers. While the life science cold chain may not be dead, it will be a shadow of its former self. COVID-19 may be what finally pushes companies away from the costly and environmentally harmful logistics cold chain, and into the future.