Vaccine supply chain at risk as rollout expands

Unless distribution plans for vaccines are perfectly executed, challenges will arise in protecting the single most valuable cargo of all in the coming months. Thefts of cargo in transit make up the highest proportion of total cargo thefts across the whole of 2020, according to a report from TT Club and BSI, with other high-value targets including PPE, face masks and anti-bacterial gel.

Although specific incidents have not yet occurred, unless distribution plans for vaccines are perfectly executed within the expectations of any given population, their timely and secure delivery cannot be guaranteed.

TT Club’s managing director, loss prevention, Mike Yarwood explained: “The effects throughout 2020 of the COVID crisis threatened supply chain security, continuity and resilience. Not only did newly created high-value commodities such as PPE become targets for theft but bottlenecks in the logistics infrastructure at ports and warehouses brought increased potential risks. Temporary overflow storage facilities added to the dangers in loosening the grip of existing security systems.”

The joint annual cargo theft report indicates significant new trends both regionally and globally, although food and beverage remains the largest target, accounting for 31% of cargo thefts over the year.

Among the significant trends highlighted by the report was the relative shift in the location of thefts, with in-transit incidents and those involving vehicles showing a decline, though remaining the most dominant threat, and theft from storage facilities increasing. The extent of the rise in the latter was variable from region to region, according to the report’s authors, however this trend was reflective of the disruption to supply chains brought about by radical changes to consumer buying patterns as a consequence of the pandemic.

In Europe, the stockpiling of goods meant these inventories came under particular threat with 48% of 2020 reported thefts coming from warehouses and production facilities. This was in contrast with 2019 when only 18% came at such locations. Some 54% of incidents occurred in rest areas and parking sites in 2019 -- the 2020 figure was 19%.

In Asia, the countries with the highest risk remain India, Indonesia, China and Bangladesh. The proportion of storage-based risk remains around 50% in Asia as a whole but in Southeast Asia the in-transit risk indicates the prevalence of bribery and corruption with a high percentage of thefts being facilitated by employees and customs or other officials.

North America continues to see theft coming almost exclusively in-transit via hijackings or directly from a parked vehicle.

The risk of social unrest, particularly in Mexico, arguably impacted the risk of cargo loss through most of last year. Significant disruption to the Mexican rail freight industry, with protesters setting up blockades on train tracks, created a backup of cargo across the country. This disruption led to estimated losses of close to the equivalent of £3.1bn.

In South America, Brazil was a hotspot last year. A key driver of the high rates of cargo theft here remains the presence of major illegal drug smuggling gangs that need to fund their trafficking efforts. Again, the dominant risks were from hijacking and theft from or of vehicles. These theft types accounted for 78% of the total losses reported. The extreme rate of cargo theft, however, did drop for the first time in several years, as continued efforts by police and industry contributed to a slight decline in incidents in 2020.

Looking ahead, TT Club and BSI say the vulnerability of cargo is not set to change, as disruption and the uneven resumption of international trade resulting from the spread of COVID will continue with imbalances in shipping container distribution that are likely to impact maritime, and through a knock-on effect air cargo capacity throughout 2021.

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