Q&A: Wes Wheeler, President of UPS Healthcare

Logistics Management Group News Editor Jeff Berman recently caught up with Wes Wheeler, President of UPS Healthcare, a subsidiary of Atlanta-based global freight transportation and logistics services provider UPS. Wheeler provided insights on various aspects of the segments UPS Healthcare serces, including: the impact of the pandemic on the cold chain and refrigerated (reefer) logistics; lessons learned from the pandemic; and the impact of global trade on the cold chain and global supply chains, among others. The interview follows below. 

Logistics Management (LM): How would you describe the biggest differences in the logistics cold chain from the beginning of the pandemic to now? What were the biggest changes and shifts and what were the key steps UPS Healthcare took to navigate things?

Wheeler: COVID certainly changed most of what we now know about the cold chain, particularly when it comes to logistics. It was only a little more than two years ago that the world’s reliance on and awareness of the cold chain grew and changed its trajectory forever. Today, UPS Healthcare has rapidly accelerated its innovative approaches around cold chain logistics. This was particularly evident with COVID vaccine delivery, as many vaccines had to be kept below -70 degrees C for them to remain stable and useable. UPS Healthcare was one of the first organizations to offer its services to deliver COVID vaccines quickly, efficiently, safely and effectively around the world.

In the last few years, UPS Healthcare has invested in over 36,000m2 of cold chain GMP coolers and freezers that can support the storage of drugs at ambient temperatures to as low as minus-80°C, and ten new or upgraded facilities throughout Europe, Asia, and the USA. We have also delivered more than 1.5 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to more than 110 countries with a 99.8% on-time, by day, performance and have continued our growth and expansion of our various logistics and cold chain capabilities to our global healthcare customers. To support this expansion, we recently announced a new cold chain facility in Dublin, Ireland, going online next year that will deliver next-generation biologics, critical vaccines and vital medical devices to patients around the world.

Logistics Management (LM): What were the biggest logistics “lessons learned” stemming from the pandemic, related to transporting and the logistics processes related to vaccine distribution efforts?

Wheeler: From the past few years, we have clearly learned that the need for flexibility, transparency and shipment integrity is imperative within cold chains and overall supply chains. From the pandemic onward, we’ve had to learn how to overcome challenges, take risks and open ourselves up to new and unconventional ways of doing business. When the pandemic became widespread, we went into overdrive, determining our next move, adapting and molding the company and our business goals to meet the needs of our customers and patients around the world. We quickly reprioritized our upcoming initiatives and pivoted our plans to shipments and vaccine delivery, carefully planning each step of the logistics and distribution process.

The pandemic also showed us the need to enhance our overall infrastructure to support the future of the healthcare industry. As a result, we broadened our networks and expanded our connections to partners with companies and organizations worldwide, which have had a fundamental impact in various regions around the globe regarding vaccine delivery. To date, we have supported over 118 countries with COVID-19 relief efforts, providing people, supplies and infrastructure where it’s needed most. For example, over the past two years, we’ve worked with various organizations to deliver nearly 1.5 million COVID vaccine doses via drone to underrepresented populations, as well as rural and remote communities. These efforts have an immediate impact on health equity and the established healthcare infrastructure will benefit people for decades to come.

Logistics Management (LM): Where do you see the cold chain logistics market in, say, three-to-five years?

The cold chain market has been rising steadily over the past five years and is projected to grow by another 25% over the next few years, reaching $21.3 billion in 2024. While the pandemic continues to reshape the industry and accelerate the need for more cold chain infrastructure, I see new product innovation in large-molecule biological drugs driving the need for temperature-controlled logistics, and foresee other new, innovative, technology-driven automation, including robotics, playing a huge role in the expansion and growth of the supply/cold chain in the years to come.

As cold chain drugs and biologics continue to grow at a rapid pace, they will highlight the future need for more, deep frozen and cryogenic storage. Various technologies will enable users to know when warehouse products are filled, improve pickup accuracy and help get sensitive biologics to patients when they need them and at their convenience. For these reasons, I predict companies and healthcare organizations will continue to build more sophisticated capabilities in cold chain logistics.

Logistics Management (LM):  What are UPS Healthcare’s primary innovations and objectives for a stronger cold chain?

It’s our primary goal to continue to build a strong and lasting global cold chain infrastructure. As we continue to expand our cold chain facilities worldwide, we’re also innovating our products to provide more flexibility to meet our customer’s unique needs. For example, we recently expanded our next-generation UPS Premier product line, which always monitors packages, creating visibility and prioritization for each shipment. An added layer of sensor technology enables real-time recovery of these shipments if they encounter network delays, temperature deviations, or other issues, enabling us to precisely monitor temperature-controlled packages anywhere within the UPS global network. As innovations in biologics, specialty pharmaceuticals, cell & gene therapeutics and complex medical devices continue to drive significant demand for precision logistics, it’s our goal to support more patient-critical, time and temperature-sensitive products.

Logistics Management (LM):  How is global trade impacting global supply chains and cold chains, specifically in the U.S.?

The COVID pandemic highlighted both major supply and cold chain disruptions as well as the U.S.’ dependence on foreign sources, which is initiating changes in existing. supply chains serving the US and Europe.  As an industry, we need to provide alternative trade lanes which allow flexibility when lock-downs or disruptions occur. It’s imperative that companies expand their sourcing opportunities to be more reliable and better adapt to times of uncertainty.

Regarding the cold chain, the industry saw a tremendous amount of growth in a short amount of time, which created new challenges. The increase in demand for cold chain services, coupled with a growth in e-commerce and shipping delays led to a larger need for automation and digitization, forcing companies like UPS Healthcare to improve cold chain management.

We are also seeing a rapid movement from traditional distribution models to more home-based care.  This will continue to challenge us as we move to smaller, more nimble movements at the point of care.

About the Author

Jeff Berman, Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman


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