“2 billion vaccines by the end of 2021” is the goal of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) “COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access” (COVAX) Facility set up in APR20 to ensure “rapid, fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide” in the world’s largest global vaccine initiative. UNICEF, the WHO’s partner for over 70 years, has the lion’s share of the distribution responsibility and on 16FEB21 officially launched the UNICEF Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative to “bring together airlines covering routes to over 100 countries” to achieve the distribution goal.
To date, 16 airlines have pledged their support, signing Memorandums of Understanding (MoU) with UNICEF in the past few days. They are:
AirBridgeCargo, Air France/KLM, Astral Aviation, Brussels Airlines, Cargolux, CathayPacific, Emirates Skycargo, Ethiopian Airlines, Etihad Airways, IAG Cargo, Korean Air, Lufthansa Cargo, Qatar Airways, SAUDIA, Singapore Airlines Ltd, United Airlines
3% of the population of 145 countries
The first-round allocation plan of COVAX looks to provide 145 countries with enough doses to immunize circa 3% of their respective populations, kicking off in the first half of this year. The UNICEF Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative in support of the COVAX Facility, looks to work together with airlines “committed to prioritizing the transport of the life-saving supplies, ensuring measures such as temperature control and security and adding freight capacity to routes where needed.” It goes without saying that the nature of the vaccines require special handling and fast, efficient, temperature-controlled cool chains in order to safeguard their effectivity and safety.
“Delivery of these life-saving vaccines is a monumental and complex undertaking, considering the sheer volumes that need to be transported, the cold chain requirements, the number of expected deliveries and the diversity of routes,” Etleva Kadilli, Director of UNICEF Supply Division, stated. “We are grateful to these airlines for joining forces with the UNICEF Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative to support the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines.”
Among the first to sign on 16FEB21, was Astral Aviation. “We are truly honored to be selected by UNICEF to participate in the Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative, based on our track-record in performing humanitarian flights within Africa and the Middle East during the past twenty years. We will be placing our entire fleet of B747F, B767F, B727F, DC9F, CRJ-200, Fokker 50, and Fokker 27 on high priority, which is critical to the timely and secure delivery of vaccines and critical supplies, as we consider it our moral-obligation to ensure that no person in Africa is left-behind due to lack of aircraft capacity,” its CEO, Sanjeev Gadhia, underlined. Over at Ethiopian Airlines, Group CEO, Tewolde GebreMariam, declared “We have invested heavily in our cargo capabilities and launched a new cold chain cargo transport equipped with simultaneous cabin temperature controlling system to efficiently distribute life-saving supplies across the world and we will discharge the global mission.”
The Middle East is strongly represented by four airlines: “We’re in this together, and together we’re better” was the message of a 30-second video that Emirates SkyCargo published on Social Media, whilst Saudia Airlines was quiet on the subject, though the Kingdom has a long history of cooperating with UNICEF and earlier this month announced it would be supporting Yemen in financing shots for 50% of its population, indicating it would also support other low-income countries in need in the COVAX Facility. Martin Drew, Senior VP Sales and Cargo at Etihad Aviation Group, explained: “Etihad Cargo had no hesitation in supporting UNICEF’s far-reaching humanitarian initiative to aid children most at risk worldwide. This partnership is in line with Etihad Aviation Group’s commitment to improve the wellbeing of people everywhere and underpins Abu Dhabi’s international role [refering to The HOPE Consortium] in providing humanitarian aid to build a safer world.” Qatar Airways Cargo’s CCO, Guillaume Halleux, stated: “The logistics around the transportation of these shipments is complex and being at the forefront of time and temperature-sensitive transportation, we understand the intricacies of a seamless cool chain and the criticality of transporting COVID19 related shipments on priority.”
While the rest of the world is well-represented, so far just one airline is on board over in the Americas – namely United. “This week, we were honored to become the first U.S. airline to join the UNICEF Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative to combat the COVID-19 pandemic by transporting the vaccine and other critically needed supplies to underserved areas of the globe,” its press release stated, quoting its Director of Cargo Specialty Products, Manu Jacobs as saying “We are committed to helping the global community in any way we can, and we all must work together to do our part to bring this health and humanitarian crisis to an end.”
Singapore Airlines, the first to transport the Pfizer vaccine from Belgium to the Asia-Pacific region on 19DEC20, stated: “With our proven vaccine transportation capabilities, we are committed to using our extensive network and work together with partners in Singapore and across the supply chain to support the global effort in overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic.” Cathay Pacific announced on 19FEB21: “Today, we flew the first shipment of COVID-19 vaccines to Hong Kong. We are proud to do our part in the fight against the pandemic.” Korean Air, which launched a dedicated task force in SEP20 to ensure the safe transportation of the Covid-19 vaccines, announced on 17FEB21, that it too had signed the UNICEF agreement.
Over in Europe, the press releases came in thick and fast. Speaking for Air France KLM Martinair Cargo, its SVP Sales & Distribution, GertJan Roelands, said: “We’re very pleased to be formalizing our partnership with UNICEF by signing a Memorandum of Understanding. We’ve been working together for a long time and are confidently looking forward to participating in this Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative.” At IAG Cargo, John Cheetham, CCO, stated: “We've already transported over one million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines across the world, alongside transporting medical equipment, other types of vaccines, COVID-19 testing kits and PPE, as well as continuing to transport everyday products the world needs.”
Lufthansa Cargo, which will be deploying the loading capacities of the Lufthansa Group airlines: Brussels Airlines, Austrian Airlines, Eurowings, and Lufthansa, was represented by its CEO, Peter Gerber: “By supporting the UNICEF Initiative we are also contributing to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal ’Good Health & Wellbeing’ which we have committed to.” Words that were similarly echoed by Cargolux’s President and CEO, Richard Forson: “This initiative is fully aligned with the airline’s values and it was therefore natural for us to take part. We look forward to leveraging our expertise in the field to provide seamless and secure transport for these life-saving products.”
Covid-19 and beyond
Over at the Volga-Dnepr Group, Healthcare Director, Yulia Celetaria, spoke for AirBridge Cargo, saying: “We are proud to be among the top leading airlines to support UNICEF efforts in distributing COVID-19 vaccines which will help us to reach herd immunity, and bring us one step closer to post-Covid normality. […] Apart from COVID-19 vaccines, we keep supporting ongoing UNICEF healthcare programs to guarantee availability of vital medicines and vaccines from other diseases”. A look at the Volga-Dnepr site not only demonstrates its highly active role in the transport of PPE to date, but its lengthy Covid-19 brochure also graphically illustrates the huge scope of related pandemic cargo besides simply transporting a complex vaccine. Freight that will be required for some time yet to come.
UNICEF’s press release underlines: “The UNICEF Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative will also act as a global logistics preparedness mechanism for other humanitarian and health crises over the longer term.” There will be other crises beyond the Covid-19 that will require cooperation, and the longer term MoUs signed by the airlines reflect this. The pandemic has shown what can be achieved through collaboration and has set a standard for a “new normal.”
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