Delivering COVID-19 vaccines safely will be the ‘mission of the century’ for air cargo industry

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pic:getty/IamAnupong
Pic:getty/IamAnupong

Related tags: distribution, Vaccines, COVID-19 vaccine

Transporting a COVID-19 vaccine to 7.8 billion people around the world would fill 8,000 jumbo jets – illustrating the enormity of the distribution challenge. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) warns of potential capacity constraints, saying planning must begin now.

Air cargo will have an important role to play in vaccine distribution: thanks to its well-established global network and temperature-sensitive distribution systems.

The IATA – which represents around 290 airlines and 82% of global air traffic – is calling on governments to begin careful planning with industry stakeholders now in order to be ready when vaccines for COVID-19 are approved.

Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO, IATA, said: “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. 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.”

Cold chain facilities

Vaccines must be handled and transported in line with international regulatory requirements, at controlled temperatures and without delay to ensure the quality of the product. It is clear the scale of activity will be vast: requiring cold chain facilities and global distribution, says the IATA.

Furthermore, planning must be done around a number of unknown factors: such as the number of doses, temperature requirements and manufacturing locations.  

In order to prepare, facilities will have to work to ensure the availability of temperature-controlled facilities and equipment, which could include repurposing existing infrastructure. Staff will also need to be trained to handle vaccines; while robust monitoring systems will be required to ensure the integrity of the vaccines.

Security is another consideration: with vaccines being highly valuable commodities. Shipments must remain secure from tampering and theft. Although the air cargo industry already has processes in place, they will need to be scaled up for the volume of vaccines.

One issue that could pose a particular challenge, according to the IATA, is border control. As a response to the pandemic, many governments have put extra measures in place that increase processing times. Vaccines deliveries will need to make sure appropriate regulatory approvals are in place; security measures are adequate; and custom clearance can be swiftly obtained.

IATA: Priorities for border processes

  • Introducing fast-track procedures for overflight and landing permits for operations carrying the COVID-19 vaccine
  • Exempting flight crew members from quarantine requirements
  • Supporting temporary traffic rights for operations carrying the COVID-19 vaccines where restrictions may apply
  • Removing operating hour curfews for flights carrying the vaccine to facilitate the most flexible global network operations
  • Granting priority on arrival of those vital shipments to prevent possible temperature excursions due to delays
  • Considering tariff relief to facilitate the movement of the vaccine

Capacity: 'The air cargo industry faces its largest single transport challenge ever'

The IATA warns of ‘potentially severe capacity constraints’ in air transportation for vaccines.

With the severe downturn in passenger traffic, airlines have downsized networks and put many aircraft into remote long-term storage. The cargo capacity of the global air transport industry has diminished.  

According to the IATA, providing just a single dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to 7.8 billion people around the world would fill 8,000 747 cargo aircraft. And while land transport will be possible in situations where vaccines are manufactured locally, the IATA emphasises that vaccines cannot be delivered globally without the significant use of air cargo.

“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,”​ said de Juniac

“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. If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised.”   

Related topics: Markets & Regulations, COVID-19

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