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Air cargo’s moon shot: Get COVID vaccine to world

International Air Transport Association warns of severe capacity constraints, calls on governments to facilitate supply chain cooperation

Dock door at Lufthansa Cargo's Frankfurt pharma hub. Lufthansa is expected to be heavily involved in shipping COVID-19 vaccines. (Photo: Lufthansa Cargo)

It will take more than 8,000 Boeing 747 all-cargo jets to deliver a COVID-19 vaccine to 8 billion people worldwide. If more than one dose is required, the required airlift will be much greater, the International Air Transport Association says.

Airline industry officials are warning that an air cargo system suffering from severe capacity shortages and not equipped to move massive quantities of temperature-sensitive cargo will be stretched to its limits without sustained collaboration between governments, aid agencies, transportation providers and manufacturers.

Governments should organize public-private partnerships and coordinate with one another to plan emergency distribution, help pre-establish a network of warehouses and transportation capabilities, and remove regulatory impediments to logistics operations, IATA and freight-handling companies say.

Whether the equivalent of 8,000 jumbo jet flights are needed for the COVID-19 vaccine is open to debate. Trucks are expected to help deliver vaccines in developed economies with manufacturing capacity. There may be production shortages and some people will refuse a vaccine. But airfreight will be required for long-distance moves. Some volume could also move in the lower decks of passenger aircraft. IATA’s figure, however, illustrates the magnitude of the logistics challenge associated with an emergency distribution effort.

Express delivery and logistics giant DHL, in a recent white paper, estimated that delivering 10 billion doses over the next two years will require 15,000 flights, about 200,000 pallet and container moves, and 15 million cooler boxes. 

“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. In planning their vaccine programs, particularly in the developing world, governments must take very careful consideration of the limited air cargo capacity that is available at the moment,” IATA Director General Alexander de Juniac said in a statement Wednesday. “If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised.”  

With passenger airlines operating at about a quarter of normal capacity because few are traveling during the pandemic, most of the responsibility for transporting vaccines will fall on freighter operators. Cargo space on aircraft is about a third less than a year ago and is rapidly tightening further out of Asia with tech companies reserving entire planes for new product releases, retailers importing merchandise for the holidays, rising e-commerce sales and high demand for face masks and other personal protective equipment. 

IATA urged governments to facilitate the vaccine airlift by: 

  • Exempting flight crews from quarantine requirements.
  • Fast-tracking overflight and landing permits for ad hoc charter flights.
  • Supporting temporary traffic rights for operations carrying COVID-19 vaccines where restrictions may apply.
  • Removing operating hour curfews for flights carrying vaccines.
  • Granting customs priority to vital shipments to prevent possible temperature damage due to delays.
  • Considering tariff relief.

It also reiterated the need for risk-based precautions rather than quarantines and border closures so ailing airlines can restart more passenger flights. Following common international mitigation guidelines for minimizing health risks will help reopen the global economy and passenger networks, which can help distribute vaccines, officials said. 

Before COVID, airlines connected 24,000 city pairs. The World Health Organization, UNICEF and Gavi, the vaccine alliance, have already reported severe difficulties in maintaining their regular vaccine programs for other diseases during the COVID-19 crisis due, in part, to limited air connectivity.

Unique distribution challenges

Shipping medicine is much more complex than for general merchandise. Vaccines must be handled and transported according to international regulatory requirements, at controlled temperatures and without delay to ensure their safety and effectiveness. Dry ice, refrigerated containers and cold-storage facilities are key components of the pharmaceutical supply chain.

Conventional vaccines need to be kept between 35 to 46 Fahrenheit (2 degrees and 8 degrees Celsius) throughout their journey. Others are shipped in a deep frozen state, or up to -112 degrees Fahrenheit. 

About 250 potential COVID-19 vaccines are in various stages of development, with nine or 10 in more advanced stages. The number of doses, temperature sensitivities and manufacturing locations for the ultimate winners is unknown.

Shipping glass vials of vaccine poses a volumetric challenge for supply chains. Special, bulky boxes are used to protect the vials from each other, and only a few can fit in each box.

Security arrangements for vaccines will also need to be stringent to prevent tampering and theft, officials said. 

Cold storage shortage  

The airline industry, together with airports, freight forwarders and ground handling partners, invested heavily last decade in temperature-controlled services in response to pharmaceutical industry concerns about gaps in the chain of custody that compromised shipment integrity. Between 2000 and 2013, air cargo’s share of global pharma product transport declined from 17% to 11%, according to IATA. Half of all temperature deviations occurred while products were in the hands of airlines and airports, resulting in $2.5 billion to $12.5 billion in annual losses.

In response, the trade association and other groups created stringent validation programs for facilities to demonstrate participating members meet the highest temperature-controlled shipping and storage standards. Lufthansa Cargo, for example, recently opened new pharmaceutical storage facilities in Munich and Chicago. It has 31 temperature-controlled facilities in its network, most of them certified for their expertise and quality control in processing pharmaceutical products.

UPS is building special facilities with rows of cyrogenic storage tanks in preparation for ultra-cold storage of vaccines. The freezer farms, located in the Netherlands and the U.S., can hold up to 48,000 vials of medicine.

But much of that refrigerated infrastructure is located around major airports and designed to support normal programs where vaccines are ordered in advance from manufacturers in smaller, planned quantities and disbursed over time, Glyn Hughes, IATA’s global head of cargo, told reporters on a conference call. Often, those smaller shipments can fit comfortably in the belly of passenger flights.

The biggest logistics concern, he said, is final-mile delivery and building out cold-storage facilities to meet the rush of a new coronavirus vaccine.

“From factory to airport, from airport to airport, right up to the point of clearance at destination, we feel there are good procedures in place. Now we need to scale those up because right now they don’t adequately cover the entire planet” or meet the magnitude of the requirement, Hughes said.

Spreading manufacturing over many sites worldwide will help alleviate distribution problems, but that may not be possible in Africa, Latin America and other regions, he added.

Getting vaccines to the end user will be especially challenging in less developed regions such as Africa, especially with passenger networks mostly closed, the IATA official said. 

“If a vaccine were to be distributed today, there would be no way to distribute it throughout the continent. Impossible,” Hughes said. “The continent is too large, there are too many borders. You can’t use road transport, you can’t use ocean transport. 

“So it does require a very intricate, well-planned logistical look, almost to military precision, at where the cargo can arrive in safe conditions and put the preparations in place” for cold-storage staging points.

Keys to successful vaccine distribution include maximizing the use of, or repurposing, existing infrastructure and minimizing temporary buildings; making sure warehouse workers that handle time- and temperature-sensitive vaccines are not prevented from working by local restrictions; and information systems that can monitor temperature conditions at all times. 

Sourcing and vetting refrigerated capabilities

IATA said it is introducing a free online platform that provides a detailed list of independently validated aviation logistics facilities around the world and their capabilities, including equipment, services and certifications. The tool, One Source, is designed to help companies find and objectively compare business partners with data guaranteed to be accurate. The greater transparency is especially critical when high-value, temperature-sensitive and urgent shipments are involved. 

One Source covers airlines, airports, cargo handling facilities, freight forwarders, ground handlers, shippers and trucking companies, providing a single reference point and greater transparency into more than 3,500 differently sized cargo facilities worldwide. 

“It’s not just creating a Yellow Pages directory where people can say, ‘I just want to find somebody somewhere,’” Hughes said. “It will be validated information and very comprehensive,” to include IATA’s Center of Excellence for Independent Validators in Pharmaceutical Logistics and other certification programs.

IATA is working with aid groups, manufacturers and their trade associations, airports and ground handlers to prepare for vaccine distribution, Hughes said. Gavi has previously said that it’s first priority is to distribute a vaccine to health care workers and first responders because of the critical safety role they play.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch. / Contact: [email protected] / Twitter: @ericreports


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, he was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]