When Covid-19 struck and India began making its vaccines, it also supplied them to several countries. Images of shipments being exported from India were all over newspapers and televisions. Everyone sat up and took notice of those pictures. But did you know that pharmaceutical shipments are stored and handled in a very different way from general cargo?
Pharmaceutical items are often temperature-sensitive and travel all over the world. Vaccines made in India, for example, are shipped to Europe. They need to be kept at a specific temperature. But what happens when these products leave the manufacturing unit for export but have to wait until the scheduled flights? The Core visited the Cargo Service Center (CSC) perishable cargo terminal located at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA) to understand how the centre keeps a continuous cold chain throughout its facilities for maintaining the integrity and freshness of sensitive cargo from storage to disbursal.
In collaboration with pharmaceutical companies like Alkem Laboratories, Abbott India Limited, Amtec Healthcare, Ciron Drugs Pharmaceuticals, Bharat Serum, Bharat Biotech, and Serum Institute of India, CSC handles pharma products such as Covid, polio, measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), and hepatitis B vaccinations.
While general cargo is simple to handle, temperature-sensitive perishables and pharmaceutical items that are handled at storage facilities need a specific temperature for storage.
CSC is an Indian air cargo handling organisation that provides airport services, cool chain logistics, and consultancy services. Founded in 1992, CSC has offices in Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Cochin and Kannur. Pramod Pereira, deputy general manager at CSC took The Core on a tour of Mumbai's cold chain terminals, demonstrating how pharmaceutical (pharma) and agricultural (agro) products are handled.
How It Begins
Like any other service requires booking for availing it, the first step in the process of cargo shipment is also booking. The manufacturer or shipper chooses a freight forwarder to handle the entire export procedure. The chosen freight forwarder arranges for the consignment to be transported with the airline. An agent from the freight forwarder then arrives at the cargo handling terminal with the cargo and confirmed flight booking information, as well as the token and permit to enter the airport.
The CSC operates and manages a perishable cargo terminal, two general cargo warehouses as well as the courier cargo terminal at the Chhatrapati Shivaji airport. For a shipment to be stored at the CSC unit, the first thing the agent needs to do is get the documentation correct. The agents collect their cargo documentation at the operations desk. “We only accept cargo that has been shipped from its origin within 24 hours,” said Pereira.
Once the documentation process is approved, the company then accepts the shipment at the acceptance area of the agro and pharma cold chain terminal. These terminals maintain a temperature between 15 to 25 degrees and at a time, can accommodate up to six trucks that deliver the cargo to the aircraft.
CSC receives pharma products from the manufacturing units that are located near Mumbai or in nearby cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore. The Covishield vaccinations, for example, were shipped from the Serum Institute of India in Pune, Maharashtra, around 200 kilometres from Mumbai. The items travel by specialised refrigerated trucks and take about three to four hours if located near Mumbai and more than eight hours from surrounding states.
In order to ensure that the weight mentioned in documentation is the same as the actual weight, the company has a separate section, where the shipment is weighed. “In the agro section, to quickly identify the goods, we place cargo on a plastic skid, blue for vegetables or fruits and red for meat,” Pereira said.
Once the process is completed, the company ensures that the shipment agent is with a security person in charge of the information regarding the cargo's weight and volume. A ready for carriage (RFC) note is then generated for further movement of the cargo.
“The RFC is the fundamental document necessary for shipping acceptance. Following the RFC, the agency must wait for customs approval before moving the consignment forward for screening,” said Pereira.
Labelling And Marking
Once the weight of the cargo is established, then begins the process of labelling. Appropriate labels are attached to the cargo, including the air waybill number, destination, and total weight. For dangerous goods, special labels are needed, followed by another check on the shipments.
"One of the most critical aspects of the CSC unit is that the packaging be labelled. Every box should speak for itself in terms of the details necessary for the product to be handled correctly and transported in the right freight," said Pereira.
After the labelling process, it is security clearance. The cargo is taken through security checks and customs processes by the freight forwarder. It is subjected to security inspection by certified personnel for customs approval.
Even though the documents specify the details of the shipment, CSC checks and verifies all the details by running its own set of screening and security clearances, which may vary depending on the airlines as different airlines have different needs.
For the screening of cargo, the person-in-charge is well-trained to keep an eye on what's inside the shipment.
The next step is document verification. Multiple checks are conducted on the air waybill and accompanying documents. Different airlines may have specific document requirements with special instructions or details regarding the shipment.
CSC’s storage facility comprises seven cold storage chambers with temperature maintained between two and eight degrees for sensitive products. Blood samples, frozen food, and other materials are stored in these chambers and each of these cool rooms can handle up to eight to ten tonnes of shipment. If required, the storage can also keep temperatures in the negative range. The pharmaceutical storage facility maintains a temperature range of 15 to 25 degrees throughout the facility.
Items that cannot be exposed to outdoor temperatures, and need to be maintained at a certain temperature during the shipping procedure as well as while loading and unloading from trucks, are stored in Envirotainer containers. These can be plugged into a charging station to maintain an equilibrium temperature. The pharma storage area has a dedicated storage facility on the mezzanine floor that can accommodate more than 80 airline pallet positions.
Prepared For Loading
Shipments need to arrive at their destination at the right temperature and the CSC employees ensure this. When a flight is scheduled, the cargo is prepared for loading into the aircraft. After the cargo has been inspected, it is loaded onto specific pallets and containers in accordance with the airlines' flight schedules.
A team leader oversees the cargo preparation and unitization process and creates a loading sheet, which includes information such as the number of shipments loaded, weight, pallet/container number, and so on. Adequate equipment is utilised to load the cargo on pallets and/or containers.
Lashes, ropes, plastic materials, and belts are used to secure the packing against any type of movement and to protect it from the destination's exterior temperature or climate.
Getting Ready For Take Off
Finally, the cargo is ready to take flight. It is loaded on the pallets and released on arrival of aircraft on the ground. The temperature of the cargo is noted during the movement of unit load devices.
Security stickers are applied to all released cargo pieces. It takes around two hours to transport the goods from the storage unit to the aircraft.
After being packed and labelled at CSC, the products are loaded on airlines like Emirates Airlines, Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways, Cathay Pacific, and British Airways at the Mumbai airport. These are then transported to parts of Africa, Turkey, The United States of America, Uzbekistan, The Netherlands, among others.
CSC is India's largest airport-based export facility, offering connections to over 500 cargo destinations across 175 countries through a network of 60 airlines. “We have always strived to be informed and innovative and are constantly seeking out new ideas. CSC India believes in challenging the status quo,” said Pereira.
It launched the Turant app in February 2021, a real-time temperature tracking app for pharmaceutical shipments. The programme has been designed with the aim of greater digitisation. The company also plans to have a wider global presence, with features such as delivering real-time updates of the shipments to providing temperature monitoring.