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An Emirates Boeing 777F departing Los Angeles. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | William Derrickson)

Carriers Expected to Play Major Role in Distribution of COVID Vaccines

As a number of drug companies enter active trial and testing phases for COVID-19 vaccines, attention is beginning to focus on how the distribution of the immunizations will take place.

In a recent press release, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), an organization representing 290 airlines comprising of 82% of the world’s air traffic, is urging world governments to begin work with industry stakeholders to ensure full preparedness when vaccines for COVID-19 are approved and available for distribution. Citing potential capacity constraints within the airline and air cargo networks, and likely need for special handling of the medicines, IATA is warning that coordination needs to begin now to avoid unnecessary delays in the distribution of the vaccines.

“Safely delivering COVID-19 vaccines will be the mission of the century for the global air cargo industry. But it won’t happen without careful advance planning. And the time for that is now. We urge governments to take the lead in facilitating cooperation across the logistics chain so that the facilities, security arrangements and border processes are ready for the mammoth and complex task ahead,” said IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and its appointed Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE), have released a worldwide vaccine distribution plan, endorsed by 78 of the world’s countries. The plan will call for distribution of the vaccines in a global fashion, prioritizing vaccination among the most vulnerable people everywhere.

The logistics of transporting the vaccines to the world are certain to be enormous. The vaccine will be time-sensitive and require temperature-controlled facilities.

Facilities

IATA believes vaccines will need to be handled and transported in line with international regulatory requirements, at controlled temperatures and without delay to ensure the quality of the product. While there are still many unknowns (number of doses, temperature sensitivities, manufacturing locations, etc.), IATA believes it is clear that the scale of activity will be vast, that cold chain facilities will be required and that delivery to every corner of the planet will be needed.

In addition to temperature-controlled facilities, personnel will need to be trained and monitoring established to ensure the quality and safety of the vaccines.

Security

In addition to the logistics required to move the vaccines, security will need to be robust. IATA  is recommending arrangements be established to keep shipments secure from tampering and theft. Today, processes are in place to keep cargo shipments secure, but the potential volume of vaccine shipments will need early planning to ensure that they are scalable.

Border Processes

IATA is further cautioning that delays are likely at border crossing points if customs clearance coordination is not properly arranged beforehand. IATA is calling for fast-track procedures, elimination of flight curfews, granting priority handling, and relief from tariffs to ensure timely delivery of the vaccines.

Capacity

But COVID itself may be responsible for the biggest challenge in the distribution of the vaccine. Due to the economic impact to the airline and cargo industries, air transport capacity is significantly reduced.

IATA noted that “the potential size of the delivery is enormous. Just providing a single dose to 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 747 cargo aircraft.”

IATA warned that “with the severe downturn in passenger traffic, airlines have downsized networks and put many aircraft into remote long-term storage. The global route network has been reduced dramatically from the pre-COVID 24,000 city pairs.

Further complicating the logistics is the vaccine distribution may only be a temporary requirement. Once the spread of the virus has been arrested, and the demand for the vaccine is reduced, the investment and need for the facilities and transportation capital may evaporate.

“Even if we assume that half the needed vaccines can be transported by land, the air cargo industry will still face its largest single transport challenge ever. If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised,” said de Juniac.   

Rick Shideler
Rick Shideler
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