• Chunichi Shimbun

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At Yamato Transport Co.’s delivery center in Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, COVID-19 vaccine doses are stored at below minus 60 degrees Celsius in 25 ultracold freezers, ready to be shipped to mass inoculation sites and clinics in the city.

But delivering vaccines to each site and clinic requires meticulous planning, with the company delivering doses along with syringes and other equipment to the locations based on the number of reservations made up until three days prior to the day of the inoculation.

With that in mind, Yamato Transport came up with what it calls the “bus stop” shipping system, in which it sets delivery routes and times according to the opening hours of clinics, so that it can make the deliveries to some 140 clinics and mass inoculation sites in the city at the right time.

This delivery system, which has been the basis for efficient inoculations, has been dubbed the “Toyota city model” and was created through the cooperation of Yamato Transport, the Toyota Municipal Government and Toyota Motor Corp., which is headquartered in the city.

In February, when Aichi Prefecture was placed under a second state of emergency, the three organizations held a meeting together with members of the local medical association.

At the meeting, Masahiro Hayashi, 48, in charge of planning delivery services at Yamato Transport, told Nobuaki Miyajima, 43, responsible for logistical support for Toyota factories worldwide, “Let’s act on it from the viewpoint of quickly delivering the vaccine to as many people as possible, and not as a business.”

It didn’t take long for them to start working together to develop a system to distribute the vaccine in a safe and secure manner.

Although the two firms jointly developed home delivery vans in the early 1980s, they came together by chance this time, as they were separately thinking about how to contribute to vaccine distribution.

As it happens, for the past three years Yamato Transport had been researching ways to carry out ultracold deliveries without using dry ice, which can cause carbon dioxide poisoning.

It started working with Add Co., an ultracold freezing equipment-maker in Numazu, Shizuoka Prefecture, as ice packs made with the firm’s deep freezers, which can achieve minus 120 degrees Celsius, had the potential to be used as an alternative to dry ice.

Meanwhile, Toyota, which was exploring ways to support the fight against COVID-19, contacted Add in November and began helping to boost production of freezers.

With only three months left before the start of the nation’s vaccine rollout, they had to come up with specific ways to distribute the vaccine in the city.

As the government did not give clear instructions at the time on how doses should be distributed, Yamato was receiving inquiries from more than 300 municipalities across the country.

Medical workers and municipal government officials explained possible issues that could arise, including the burdensome task of preparing doses for each of the inoculation sites and delivering them to clinics during their opening hours so that they can receive them in a timely manner.

Upon hearing of these issues, Hayashi applied the firm’s distribution know-how to work out specific delivery routes.

Yamato Transport also experimented with Add’s ice packs under different settings, including various temperatures, at the firm’s facility and developed a system to deliver doses in a box containing seven ice packs.

The packs enable the boxes to be delivered while being kept below minus 60 degrees Celsius for 30 hours, minimizing the risk of the doses being wasted and disposed of.

Miyajima and other Toyota officials, meanwhile, applied the firm’s kaizen improvement philosophy to the process of packing vaccine vials at Yamato Transport’s distribution center.

There, five workers pack the vials in paper cases at a round table, but a Toyota employee noticed that the cases sometimes slip.

They suggested creating a jig to fix the cases, and the device was set up on the table three days later.

“The speed (at making improvements) is much faster than us,” said an impressed Hayashi.

The staff members met once a week to make necessary improvements to the distribution system. The Toyota city model is the fruit of intersectoral collaboration.

In mid-May, when the doses were shipped for the first time, some Yamato Transport workers at the distribution center stayed all night beside the freezers containing the vaccine, worried that the temperature might not be kept at the right level.

“Maybe they developed a stronger awareness of handling the precious vaccine after working with Toyota,” Hayashi said.

This section features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published June 8.

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