Much of the second half of 2020 was focused on pulling the air cargo industry together to prepare for the largest logistical challenge it would ever have seen: the global transportation of the Covid-19 vaccine, once available. With the UK being the first to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on 02DEC20, the starting gun was fired. Since then, a domino-effect has slowly begun to snowball, as other countries follow suit, and other vaccine producers also file for approvals. The Alcott Global’s “MOVERS & MAKERS Cold Chain COVID-19 Vaccine Summit”, held online to an audience of over 3,500 on 04FEB21, included a panel discussion on the lessons learned so far.
Moderated by Alcott Global’s MD Asia Pacific and Chief Energy Officer, Radu Palamariu, the panel included Rob Walpole, Vice President of Delta Cargo,
Leonora Lim, Vice President Life Sciences & Healthcare Asia Pacific at DHL,
Michael Culme-Seymour, Advisor to the World Economic Forum & World Health Organization, and Andrea Gruber, Head of Special Cargo at IATA.
“This is really nothing new!”
Michael Culme-Seymour, after recalling the overwhelming media hype regarding the logistics challenge in face of capacity limitations, put it bluntly, stating that UNICEF (tasked with the largest delivery of Covax to 20% of the world population) coordinates the logistics of 2 billion vaccines against all kinds of diseases every year, and that “This is really nothing new! The infrastructure is there, the science is there,” though admittedly the BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine presents particular temperature challenges.
“It’s a rock star arrival!”
Transporting vaccines is something that has been done regularly for years, Rob Walpole agreed, pointing out that the key difference in this case was the sheer scale of the operation, and Leonora Lim also addressed the “temperature requirements outside of the norm of conventional pharma shipments,” along with the many open questions – which route? which temperature requirements? which infrastructures? – that needed addressing in preparation for each shipment movement.
What was different here, Michael Culme-Seymour continued, was the global approach focused on a single objective: “It reminds me of the race to the moon! This was a race for pharma companies and countries to be the first out with the vaccine, and when they arrive in the country, it’s a rock star arrival,” – one that had the added issues of managing the press and its expectations when witnessing the vaccines’ arrival.
Capacity crunch – yes or no?
The panel held varying views on the air cargo capacity situation. Andrea Gruber outlined IATA’s opinion: “Like an umbrella, we look at the supply chain from end-to-end. Today, for sure there is a capacity and connectivity issue,” given that a vast number of flights were still grounded that would otherwise provide belly capacities. She agreed that the air freight industry had years of experience in transporting pharmaceuticals and that “the air cargo process is robust,” but also illustrated the work IATA had been putting in to “increase collaboration, cooperation, and communication” across governments, authorities, and respective stakeholders, to tackle other bottlenecks posed by the challenge of the scale of the undertaking to ensure fast, global delivery.
Notably, operational issues such as “limited dry ice quantities in the aircraft” which created much discussion, not least because different aircraft manufacturers allow different quantities. Since governments did not want to be seen as bottleneck in the distribution, they collaborated on increasing dry ice limits. Similarly, world customs worked together to facilitate these special cargo movements. Yet, she emphasized, “we are still only at a very early stage of the transport of the vaccines…”
The lull before the peak
A view that was shared by all panelists. “We’re just in the early days. It’s a very fluid situation. We all have to remain flexible,” Michael Culme-Seymour stated. The panel agreed that, given the slow uptake of the challenge due to bottlenecks in pharma production, along with the dry ice limitations, air cargo capacity was not yet stretched to its limit. Both Culme-Seymour and Rob Walpole anticipated a peak over the next 6-12 months and felt that “the true challenge will be when the fanfare dies down, and volumes possibly increase [given that the vaccine may require an annual refresher], and they will arrive by scheduled flights. Will we then have the capacity to manage the day to day clearing through customs, etc.?” Alongside this, all panelists voiced the fact that the first and last miles, along with storage and the end-facilities, were where the true logistical challenges where still to be solved. Throughout the Covid-19 Vaccine Summit, however, a number of solution providers from mobile cooling units to digital tracking and beyond, offered various solutions to these issues.
Knock-on and knock-off challenges
The pandemic has created other bottlenecks that should be addressed, the panel felt: the fact that while the world was focused on Covid-19, there were many other diseases out there not being treated as they should, due to lack of staff, infrastructure, and lock-down regulations.
In addition to the medical knock-on effect, there was the economic one for so many industries reliant on free movement of people and goods. The panel hoped for a swift return to more normal air travel and transport once more. Yet, three challenges addressed by Michael Culme-Seymour in reference to his experience of the situation in South East Asia, are also worth mentioning, since they will no doubt pertain to other parts of the world: 1) local manufacture of vaccines: the closer to home, vaccines can be made available, the better, 2) counterfeit: from fake Covid-19 test results to fake vaccines – a robust blockchain solution needs to be in place to ensure authenticity and trustworthiness. He mentioned that the end-user should be able to check via bar-code scan on their smartphone, that they were being administered a bona-fide product, and finally, 3) the growing issue of bio-medical waste through the increase in PPE, needles, and other Covid-19 related refuse: not all locations have the facilities for incineration, and could the logistics therefore play a part in removing and helping to destroy this waste?
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