It has been widely reported that the world will need 8,000 dedicated 747 jumbo jets to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine to everyone.
That’s the figure the International Air Transport Association gave last month. DHL Express and McKinsey, meanwhile, estimate that 15,000 freighters will be needed to deliver 10 billion doses over two years.
The reality is, no one really knows how many aircraft it will take. There are so many variables to be determined that it’s difficult to define what the vaccine supply chain will look like.
Multiple drugmakers are racing to produce a vaccine, and each has different levels of temperature sensitivity, with some ultra-cold versions requiring storage at minus 80 degrees Celsius (-112 Fahrenheit). Some will require one dose, others two. Manufacturers will have different factories, handling requirements and shipping routes.
And not all vaccines will need to be flown to hospitals and other dispensing locations. Much of it will go by truck, with production sites expected to be located in many regions of the world.
Two critical unknowns that make logistics planning difficult now are the type of packaging that will be used and how much dry ice is required. Airlines and freight forwarding companies are urging pharmaceutical manufacturers to start sharing this type of information so they can line up the necessary infrastructure, equipment, personnel and training.
Package size will influence how much product can fit in a cooler or shipping container.
IATA based its calculation for 8,000 large freighters on the fact that one Boeing 777 can carry 1 million to 1.2 million doses of existing vaccines and that 9 billion doses will be required, Chee Meng Wong, senior vice president of cargo services at SATS Ltd., the primary ground handling agent at Singapore’s Changi Airport, said during a media briefing last week by a coalition of air cargo and pharmaceutical interests.
Some vaccines approved for final use could require much more dry ice to keep them frozen during transport.
Dangerous-goods regulations strictly limit how much dry ice — essentially, solid carbon dioxide — can be carried on airplanes because it turns to vapor as it warms. When gas is emitted in a confined space like an airplane, it displaces air and can suffocate the crew. It can also build up enough pressure inside a package to cause an explosion.
According to the International Air Transport Association’s packing instructions, boxes containing dry ice must be designed to permit the release of carbon dioxide so the package doesn’t rupture under pressure. One way to do this to not tape all the seams. The outside of each package must be marked with the net weight of the dry ice.
“I don’t know if the number of flights is 8,000. I suspect it’s something less than that,” said Neel Jones Shah, global head of airfreight at forwarder Flexport. “But clarity is really important here. The more information that we have, the more prepared this industry feels.”