Prepare for COVID-19 Vaccines’ Airlift

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Alexandre de Juniac

Chinedu Eze

As the United Kingdom, the US and other countries prepare to launch their coronavirus vaccines to protect the people from the dreaded pandemic, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has 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.

IATA noted 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 noted that this capability would be crucial to the quick and efficient transport and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines when they are available, and would not happen without careful planning, led by governments and supported by industry stakeholders.
“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 cooperation across the logistics chain so that the facilities, security arrangements and border processes are ready for the mammoth and complex task ahead,” said IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac.

“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,” said CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Dr Seth Berkley.

IATA said 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, adding that while there are still many unknowns (number of doses, temperature sensitivities, manufacturing locations, etc.), it is clear that the scale of activity would be vast, that cold chain facilities would be required and that delivery to every corner of the planet would be needed.

The global body stated that 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; the availability of staff trained to handle time- and temperature-sensitive vaccines and robust monitoring capabilities to ensure the integrity of the vaccines is maintained.
On security, IATA said vaccines would be highly valuable commodities. Arrangements must be in place to ensure that shipments remain secure from tampering and theft and recommended that processes are in place to keep cargo shipments secure, but the potential volume of vaccine shipments would need early planning to ensure that they are scalable.

IATA also said in terms of border processes, working effectively with health and customs authorities would 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.

IATA said priorities for border processes should include the introduction of fast-track procedures for over-flight and landing permits for operations carrying the COVID-19 vaccine; exemption of 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; and granting priority on arrival of those vital shipments to prevent possible temperature excursions due to delays.

IATA suggested that government should consider tariff relief to facilitate the movement of the vaccine.
The association remarked that on top of the transport preparations and coordination needed, governments must also consider the current diminished cargo capacity of the global air transport industry and 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. 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 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 endeavour,” said UNICEF Executive Director, Henrietta Fore.

“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 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,” said de Juniac.