When the projected number of 8000 747 freighters required to transport just a single vaccine each to all 7.8 billion people on the planet, is far higher than the actual number of all freighters currently in existence, and cargo capacities are already strapped due to the lack of passenger flights, then the magnitude of the upcoming challenge is obvious. “The Time to Prepare for COVID-19 Vaccine Transport is Now” reads IATA’s recent press release.
In it, IATA urges governments to work together with industry stakeholders in carefully preparing a plan of action, and to facilitate processes as far as possible. IATA's Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, laid out the scene: "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."
Who, what, where, when, how?
At this point in time, with around 140 institutions around the globe racing to come up with the COVID-19 vaccine, and over 20 of these currently undergoing first trials, most of the information required to ensure smooth logistics planning can still only be assumed: from where to where (and – importantly – via where)? How many quantities? Size and weight of vaccines? Special temperature and storage requirements? Shelf-life? How much really needs to be airfreight? All the way down to who pays what where?
"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.
Where do governments come into play?
In cutting all the red tape wherever possible, when it comes to borders and customs requirements, night flight bans, COVID-19 quarantine regulations affecting flight crews and airport/handling staff, and removing new measures that governments have stipulated which have slowed down handling and processing times along the air cargo supply chain, “Working effectively with health and customs authorities will, therefore, be essential to ensure timely regulatory approvals, adequate security measures, appropriate handling and customs clearance,” the press release reads. The push, therefore, is for “fast-track procedures for overflight and landing permits for operations carrying the COVID-19 vaccine [and] supporting temporary traffic rights for operations carrying the COVID-19 vaccines where restrictions may apply.” Important, in light of the struggle many industry players have with grounded aircraft and reduced operations along the supply chain, is that governments also “consider tariff relief to facilitate the movement of the vaccine.”
"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 Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
The industry is already coming together
CFG recently reported on the joint efforts by TIACA and Pharma.Aero already, in setting up working groups to prepare for the COVID-19 vaccine challenge: see: https://www.cargoforwarder.eu/2020/08/11/tiaca-pharma-aero-blaze-a-trail-to-airfreight-covid-19-vaccines/ and https://www.cargoforwarder.eu/2020/08/16/pharma-aero-tiaca-take-up-huge-logistical-challenge-part-2/. Though the two institutions are not mentioned in the IATA press release, TIACA’s Steven Polmans confirmed to CFG that they “have been in regular contact with IATA in the past weeks” and underlined that IATA has “unique strengths and is very well placed as an organization to deal with authorities and governments, so they have an important role to play in preparing the world and our industry for the distribution of the vaccines.” In response to CFG’s question as to whether there were parallel initiatives taking place, he said: “For us, this is not a competition, as we will need everybody to prepare our industry for this huge challenge. So, I welcome their initiative.”
With the recent launch of ONE Source, IATA has also gone a long way in ensuring quick and verified visibility of what capabitilities and facilities are available at which destination. Transit and handling points may well require investment (again, governments are called on here to support) in ensuring adequate facilities and trained staff for the handling of these sensitive shipments. Security is also another huge factor requiring careful planning, since the vaccines will likely be at risk of tampering and theft.
The largest global logistical challenge to date
The industry is not starting from scratch, given that both temperature sensitive and secure transports are regular processes since years. IATA’s Head of Cargo, Glyn Hughes recently stated to the BBC: “We know the procedures well. What we need to do is scale them up to the magnitude that will be required." It is a matter of ensuring that these processes are known and possible across the entire network finally arranged to carry out the largest global logistical challenge to date. The challenges arise in those regions previously not dealing with these kinds of shipments on a regular basis – and where resources and cooling facilities may be lacking.
"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," said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.
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