In the recent IATA Covid-19 vaccine logistics webinar on 21APR21 titled “Key learnings from the ongoing vaccine distribution effort and paving the way for the future”, the praise for the airlines’ efforts in transporting vaccines could not have been higher, and yet, Mounir Bouazar, COVID-19 vaccine Global Logistics Lead in UNICEF Supply Division, brought up two points that call into question the individual airline partnership motives.
Mid-FEB21, a series of press releases went out from a number of the world’s most successful cargo airlines, announcing that they had signed the UNICEF Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative and that
they would “support the prioritization of delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, essential medicines, medical devices and other critical supplies to respond to the pandemic.”
To date, 16 airlines have signed the agreement.
100% transport delivery
“I think what stands out from the humanitarian initiative that we launched already in February, where a significant number of airlines joined us and signed MoUs to prioritize the COVID-19 vaccines as well as the related supplies, (because we tend to forget all the devices and syringes and cold chain equipment that are also really needed for the success of the implementation), is the transport schedule reliability. Regarding all the 117* countries that have been delivered to, we were particularly impressed with the ratio of 100% schedule reliability, especially considering the current circumstances. This illustrates that the airline industry has been prepared, has understood the requirements, and gives us confidence for the even more challenging period that will be coming hopefully in the second half of the year with more vaccine availability, and also going towards 2022,” said Mounir Bouazar.
Access, capacity, priority, reasonable pricing, quality of transport, and schedule reliability are all aspects required of the partner airlines, and Mounir Bouazar praised the airlines’ rapid responses to ad hoc requests “To date, the overall lead time from cargo readiness until delivery in country has been quite impressive, where we are talking about almost an average of 72 hours, which also includes the transit time, and is quite a record for handling of vaccines!”
Commercial reliability – and expectation?
That the transportation factor is such a well-functioning cog in the huge operation that constitutes the WHO and UNICEF coordination of getting the vaccines distributed, is certainly a fact worth applauding. The scale of the project is immense – from ensuring vaccine availability (manufacturers, distribution, logistics, etc.) to vaccine readiness (country specifics vaccine numbers required, available storage facilities, implementation plans, medical resources, distribution logistics, etc.), and will go on well into 2022, if not beyond: a total of 190 countries are on the agenda. These are efforts that are heavily dependent on funding and that will rely on continued funding in order to secure the project going forward.
For 2021, the plans include shipping 2 billion vaccines and 1 billion syringes: shipments that require capacity and ensure a steady cargo income for the Covax Facility partner airlines.
Social aspects of the partnership?
“I think more on the down-side part, I would like to highlight 2 elements. The first one is reasonable pricing – we, of course, understand that cargo is one of the main sources of revenue, but we need to take into account the investment that is required from delivering the vaccines to not only fight the Covid-19 pandemic, but also the impact on economies, and on the airline industry, and we need to make sure that reasonable pricing is granted for vaccines, especially considering the funding constraints,” Mr. Bouazar of UNICEF’s Supply Division stated.
While he is grateful for the well-functioning commercial collaboration with the airlines, and looks forward to developing this further, he launches a call for action for the partnership front of the agreement: “we opened the floor not only for the commercial collaboration that is quite successful, but also for any forms of partnerships in the form of “in-kind” donations of cargo space. To date, I regret to say that we haven’t received any from airlines at the moment, but we have indeed received support from other partners, freight forwarding companies, for example.”
Which airline will be the first to prove that image is not just livery-deep?
At the time of writing this article, a number of press releases are going out with information on shipments of medical equipment and supplies to India in its urgent time of need. Shipments like these are good for an airline’s image, yet we should not forget that they are also commercial transactions often at the current above-average rates. The flexibility and capacity is being paid for. So far, Qatar Airways has been the only airline to announce that it will transport 300 tons of medical aid “free of charge” to India. Will Qatar Airways also be the first of the UNICEF Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative airline signatories to donate space to the Covax Facility, or will another airline be the first to step forward to prove its social responsibility in the agreement?
*to date, 01MAY21, 121 countries have received 50 million vaccines via the Covax Facility
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