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UNICEF plans COVID vaccine transport to low-income countries

Ocean, air and logistics providers polled about capacity levels

Qatar Airways and Kuehne + Nagel helped move medical supplies for UNICEF. (Photo: Qatar Airways/Kuehne + Nagel)

UNICEF says airlift will be required for about 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021and is working with the airfreight community to implement transport to more than 92 nations.

The speed and scale of a global emergency vaccine program dwarfs anything attempted before, with the challenge compounded by the fact that some vaccine candidates require two doses several weeks apart and need to be stored at sub-arctic temperatures. Emerging economies often don’t have extensive cold-chain infrastructure and what they do have can keep medicines at normal refrigerated or frozen temperatures.

The World Health Organization last month warned that Africa is ill prepared for what will be the continent’s largest ever immunization drive. All 47 countries in the region have received a WHO roadmap for how to plan for COVID vaccine introduction, including logistics. The region has an average score of 33% readiness for a vaccine roll-out, well below the desired benchmark of 80%, according to an analysis by the organization.

Low-and-middle income countries will rely on COVAX, a joint fund led by the vaccine alliance Gavi and the WHO dedicated to ensuring equitable access to COVID tests, treatments and vaccines. It is trying to secure enough doses to provide protection to an initial 20% of the African population.

The WHO analysis found that only half the countries have identified the priority populations for vaccination and have plans in place to reach them, and only a quarter have adequate plans for resources and funding. 

The WHO estimates the cost of rolling out a COVID-19 vaccine on the African continent to priority populations will be around $5.7 billion, not including an additional 15%  to 20% cost for injection materials and the delivery of vaccines, which require trained health workers, supply chain and logistics and community mobilization. This cost is based on COVAX facility estimates of the average vaccine price at $10.55 per dose and that a two-dose regimen will be needed.

The United Kingdom last week was the first country to approve the ultra-cold vaccine developed by Pfizer (PFE) and BioNTech. Shipments are being flown and trucked from Belgium and vaccines will be administered as early as Tuesday. Bahrain also gave the green light for public use of Pfizer’s drug. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel is scheduled to meet Thursday to make a recommendation on whether the Pfizer vaccine is safe for emergency use, with final agency authorization likely to quickly follow.

Wealthy nations like the U.S. and U.K., and those in the European Union have locked up much of the early vaccine in the production pipeline with large pre-orders. Canada, for example, has ordered almost nine does of COVID-19 vaccines per person. Some countries may not receive any vials of the vaccine until 2023 or 2024, according to the Duke Global Health Innovation Center in Durham, North Carolina and the publication Nature Research.

In mid-November, UNICEF joined with the Pan American Health Organization and the International Air Transport Association to brief major airlines on the expected capacity requirements and ways to transport coronavirus vaccines next year. Another requirement is for 1 billion syringes that need to be transported by ocean, the UN agency said in a statement.

The virtual meeting closely followed a meeting with more than 350 freight transportation partners, including shipping lines, airfreight specialists and third-party logistics providers. 

In collaboration with the Pan American Health Organization, UNICEF will coordinate the purchase and delivery for 92 low-and lower middle-income economies. 

Since January, UNICEF has delivered more than $190 million worth of COVID-19 supplies such as masks, gowns, oxygen concentrators and diagnostic test kits to help countries respond to the pandemic.

As the largest single vaccine buyer in the world, UNICEF normally procures more than 2 billion doses of vaccines annually for routine immunization against measles, tetanus and other diseases on behalf of nearly 100 countries. UNICEF said it is coordinating closely with logistics partners to minimize disruptions to routine immunization programs from shipment of COVID-19 vaccines and supplies. 

Last month, UNICEF began a process to stockpile more than 1 billion syringes by 2021 to guarantee initial supply and pre-position them in advance of COVID-19 vaccines distribution.

Meanwhile, Swiss logistics giant Kuehne + Nagel last month directed medical supplies, including protective equipment, to UNICEF’s Global Supply hub in Copenhagen with the help of Qatar Airways Cargo’s “1 million Kilos Campaign.”

During the second half of 2020, Qatar Airways is donating 1 million kilos of freight to freight forwarders to give to the charities of their choice. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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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 from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. 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]