Prepare now for COVID-19 vaccine logistics, IATA urges

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) yesterday urged governments to begin careful planning now with logistics and life sciences industry stakeholders and international agencies to ensure full preparedness for when vaccines for COVID-19 are approved and available for distribution, warning of potentially severe capacity constraints in transporting vaccines by air.

IATA stressed that air cargo plays a key role in the distribution of vaccines in normal times through well-established global time- and temperature-sensitive distribution systems. It said this capability will be crucial to the quick and efficient transport and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines when they are available, but “it will not happen without advance planning, led by governments and supported by industry stakeholders”.

Stating that safely delivering COVID-19 vaccines will be “the mission of the century for the global air cargo industry”, IATA’s director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac said “the time for that careful advance planning is now, adding: “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.”

In a message coordinated with key representatives from key global vaccine players including UNICEF and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, IATA highlighted four key areas needing urgent consideration: facilities; security; border processes; and capacity.

On facilities, IATA stressed that 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. “While there are still many unknowns – number of doses, temperature sensitivities, manufacturing locations, etc. – 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,” the association said.

Priorities for preparing facilities for this distribution include the availability of temperature-controlled facilities and equipment – maximizing the use or re-purposing of existing infrastructure and minimizing temporary builds; availability of staff trained to handle time- and temperature-sensitive vaccines; robust monitoring capabilities to ensure the integrity of the vaccines is maintained.

On security, IATA emphasized that the Covid-19 vaccines “will be highly valuable commodities”, highlighting: “Arrangements must be in place to keep ensure that shipments remain secure from tampering and theft. 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.”

Looking at border processesIATA stressed that “working effectively with health and customs authorities will be essential to ensure timely regulatory approvals, adequate security measures, appropriate handling, and customs clearance. This could be a particular challenge given that, as part of COVID-19 prevention measures, many governments have put in place measures that increase processing times.”

It said priorities for border processes include Introducing fast-track procedures for overflight and landing permits for operations carrying the COVID-19 vaccine; exempting flight crew members from quarantine requirements to ensure cargo supply chains are maintained; 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 the arrival of those vital shipments to prevent possible temperature excursions due to delays; and considering tariff relief to facilitate the movement of the vaccine.

Capacity challenge

On top of the transport preparations and coordination needed, IATA said governments “must also consider the current diminished cargo capacity of the global air transport industry”. It 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,” IATA stressed. “The WHO, UNICEF, and Gavi have already reported severe difficulties in maintaining their planned vaccine programs during the COVID-19 crisis due, in part, to limited air connectivity.

The association stressed that the potential size of the vaccine delivery operation “is enormous”, noting that “just providing a single dose to 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 B747 cargo aircraft. Land transport will help, especially in developed economies with local manufacturing capacity; but vaccines cannot be delivered globally without the significant use of air cargo.”

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

Henrietta Fore, executive director of UNICEF, commented: “The whole world is eagerly awaiting a safe COVID vaccine. It is incumbent on all of us to make sure that all countries have safe, fast, and equitable access to the initial doses when they are available. As the lead agency for the procurement and supply of the COVID vaccine on behalf of the COVAX Facility, UNICEF will be leading what could possibly be the world’s largest and fastest operation ever. The role of airlines and international transport companies will be critical to this endeavor.”

Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, commented: “Delivering billions of doses of vaccine to the entire world efficiently will involve hugely complex logistical and programmatic obstacles all the way along the supply chain. We look forward to working together with government, vaccine manufacturers, and logistical partners to ensure an efficient global roll-out of a safe and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.”

COVAX global initiative

As of late August, 172 countries are engaged in discussions to potentially participate in COVAX, a global initiative aimed at working with vaccine manufacturers to provide countries worldwide with equitable access to safe and effective vaccines, once they are licensed and approved. Co-led by the World Health Organization (WHO), Gavi, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) – working in partnership with vaccine manufacturers – it is the only global initiative working with governments and manufacturers to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are available worldwide to both higher-income and lower-income countries. The WHO describes COVAX as the world’s largest and most diverse COVID-19 vaccine portfolio, including nine candidate vaccines with a further nine under evaluation and conversations underway with other major producers.

In a briefing yesterday, IATA’s global head of cargo Glyn Hughes said that because of the scale of the challenge, the association was already “working across many fronts” to help co-ordinate air logistics preparations for Covid-19 vaccine deliveries, noting: “We have already commenced a large number of meetings with various UN agencies; we participate on a weekly call with the World Food Programme and UNICEF and other aid agencies with regards to the logistic cluster; we’ve engaged with numerous pharmaceutical manufacturers and associations – so we can assess the status and the readiness as it’s progressing.”

Final-mile delivery challenge

Like with e-commerce, he anticipates that the biggest challenge with vaccine delivery will be “the final mile”, particularly in some developing countries and regions.

“The airline industry, together with its freight forwarding and airport partners and ground handling partners, has already got a very well established cool-chain solution or controlled environment – from the factory to airport from airport to airport – up to the point upon clearance at destination,” he noted.

“We do need to scale those up because right now they do not adequately cover the entire planet; but at least we’ve got a good basis to look at how we could build, as an industry, hub and spoke components to that particular part of the transportation.”

DHL analysis

IATA’s observations are broadly consistent with some analysis published earlier this month by DHL, as reported by Lloyd’s Loading List. Working with McKinsey & Company as its analytics partner, its white paper highlighted that with the first emergency use authorizations for COVID-19 vaccines expected to be effective in the last quarter of 2020, logistics providers and their customers face a challenge to rapidly establish medical supply chains to deliver serums of unparalleled amounts of more than ten billion doses worldwide.

It notes that currently, more than 250 vaccines are being developed and trialed. And as COVID-19 vaccines have leapfrogged development phases, “stringent temperature requirements (up to -80°C) are likely to be imposed for certain vaccines” to ensure that their efficacy is maintained during transport and warehousing.

“This poses novel logistics challenges to the existing medical supply chain that conventionally distributes vaccines at around 2 to 8°C,” the paper notes.

The paper also highlights that “the scope of this task is immense”, noting: “To provide global coverage of COVID-19 vaccines, up to 200,000 pallet shipments and 15 million deliveries in cooling boxes as well as 15,000 flights will be required across the various supply chain set-ups.”


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