The world is very much in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, which began last year in a city in Central China, but has since grown to affect nearly every country on earth.
As the World Health Organisation (WHO) and partners work together on the response – tracking the pandemic, advising on critical interventions, distributing vital medical supplies to those in need – they are racing to find a vaccine.
Obviously, vaccines save millions of lives each year. Immunisation currently prevents two to three million deaths every year from diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, influenza and measles.
There are now vaccines to prevent more than 20 life-threatening diseases, and work is ongoing at unprecedented speed to make Covid-19 a vaccine-preventable disease as well.
Currently, nearly 170 Covid-19 vaccine candidates are under development, with some 26 of these in the human trial phase and tracked by WHO.
Vaccines normally require years of testing and additional time to produce at scale, but scientists are hoping to develop a coronavirus vaccine within 12 to 18 months.
Even if medical researchers and the pharmaceutical industry succeed in developing an effective vaccine, reaching it out to millions of people around the world is a gigantic task.
That’s why the global body of airlines – IATA recently urged governments to begin careful planning with industry stakeholders to ensure full preparedness when vaccines for Covid-19 are approved and available for distribution. The association also warned of potentially severe capacity constraints in transporting vaccines by air.
The potential size of the delivery is enormous, IATA points out. Just providing a single dose to 7.8bn people would fill 8,000 747 (jumbo) 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.
Air cargo, therefore, plays a key role in the distribution of vaccines in normal times through well-established global time – and temperature-sensitive distribution systems. This capability will be crucial to the quick and efficient transport and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines when they are available, and it will not happen without careful planning, led by governments and supported by industry stakeholders.
Industry experts say 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, experts say.
Priorities for preparing facilities for this distribution include availability of temperature-controlled facilities and equipment – maximising the use or re-purposing of existing infrastructure and minimising temporary builds, availability of staff trained to handle time – and temperature-sensitive vaccines and robust monitoring capabilities to ensure the integrity of the vaccines is maintained.
Since vaccines are highly valuable commodities, arrangements must be in place to keep ensuring that shipments remain secure from tampering and theft, IATA says. 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, it said.
Working effectively with health and customs authorities will, therefore, 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.
“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. And the time for that is now.
We urge governments to take the lead in facilitating co-operation across the logistics chain so that the facilities, security arrangements and border processes are ready for the mammoth and complex task ahead,” noted IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac.
Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, said, “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.”
Assuming that half the needed Covid-19 vaccines can be transported by land; the global air cargo industry will still face its largest single transport challenge ever!
Therefore, in planning their vaccine programmes, particularly in the developing world, governments must take very careful consideration of the limited air cargo capacity that is available at the moment.