The COVID-19 vaccines are arguably the most valuable items to be transported globally in modern times – and with the World Health Organisation (WHO) announcing that two billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been secured for distribution to 190 countries in 2021 – it will prove to be one of the biggest logistical challenges undertaken to date.

To make headway during this difficult time, the race is on for countries to transport the life-saving drug supply securely and quickly to the people who need it most. And, the world needs an innovative solution to be rapidly implemented at scale to meet the demand, which is where cardboard packaging can help.


Of course, the first concern is safety. Vaccines need to be transported across the globe with no compromise over their security, any lost vials represent a missed chance at an earlier vaccination. High performance cardboard packaging is able to effectively protects high-value and sensitive products along complex global supply chains. Innovations include tailor-made cardboard trays with inserts that secure vials, anti-counterfeit features that help medical staff identify compromised products, and lastly, technology that can monitor each package in real time to bolster security.

Cardboard packaging can also provide additional safeguards, despite the fact that there remains no evidence of virus transfer from cardboard. Antimicrobial coating on cardboard packaging can protect consumers against potentially harmful bacteria. The coating has a proven kill rate of 99.5% in under 15 minutes on bacterial types and envelope viruses – proving that sustainability can still enhance safety.


Speed is also key for distribution of the vaccine, the rollout needs to be executed quickly, there is no time for packaging to slow the process down. A strong network is vital to this as is a comprehensive knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry. Both ensure that projects are managed globally, and pharmaceutical expertise is built into packaging solutions that streamline processes by optimising resources and reducing complexity.

A ‘Green Vaccine packaging’

Like most sectors, the pharmaceutical industry is also tackling a different global emergency: the climate crisis. The industry’s emissions are higher than the automotive industry, and the vaccine rollout is predicted to generate millions of waste vials, syringes and single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) that are likely to end up being incinerated.

The roll out of vaccines will also depend on a packaging solution at every step of the process in order to reach every local vaccination point – so the potential for unnecessary waste is high.

Not only is cardboard packaging beneficial to security and speed, but it will help reduce one crisis without exacerbating another. It is circular by design, fit for a circular economy and feeds into a closed loop cycle. It allows for the designing out of waste from the onset, ensuring that what does remain can be recycled or reused into new products at end of life, so that the material comes full-circle and the total environmental impact is minimised. A well-designed package can also ensure that recycling is made easier for hospitals, which will have an abundance of material at their doors.

Setting the standard

2021 is a year that will see a global vaccine distribution that is wholly unprecedented, with the pharmaceutical industry needing to meet demands of unparalleled speed and the utmost of security throughout the supply chain. And, with plastic previously dominating global supply chains, it is our responsibility to ensure that by incorporating sustainability into the largest mass vaccine distribution in our history to date, we can set the bar high for future logistics efforts to come.

Stefano Rossi is packaging chief executive at DS Smith