Stock Emirates sky cargo
Emirates confirmed it is all set to ensure stocking and speedy supply of a future COVID-19 vaccine. Its facility at Dubai World Central comes with all the features that pharma companies mandate. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

The Christmas season is coming and when COVID-19 vaccines have passed the essential testing procedures, so will they. The development of a vaccine is only half the problem. The bigger challenge will be the distribution of 16 billion vaccine doses on an unimaginable scale (equivalent to 8,000 Boeing 747 all-cargo flights). Aviation will have an important part in this global challenge - according to IATA (2020), this is expected to be the largest airlift of a single commodity ever.

Over half of the global vaccine doses are expected to be transported by air cargo - just because of its speed and reliability. The pandemic has caused disruptions to global pharmaceutical supply chains due to airfreight capacity challenges arising from lockdowns and suspension of passenger flights.

Fortunately, some organisations are stepping up to make sure the best possible logistical arrangements are in place in advance of vaccine certification and the shipping afterwards. However, the challenge is enormous and the intervention status of global authorities in the coordination process is still pending.

As of today, the production of the vaccine is expected to start by the end of this year and reach its peak in the second quarter of 2021. Airports must begin to assess how they might be part of this enormous distribution exercise.

In developing countries, the security will be an important aspect of handling the distribution and transportation of the vaccine. A quality management system to oversee specialist processes, management oversight and delivery is essential in this case.

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Constant monitoring

Global security operations must implement infrastructure at airports such as security fencing, restricted access to pharmaceutical zones, 24x7 coverage via CCTV, and intrusion alarm systems.

Apart from security, temperature requirements for the transportation of the vaccine are of paramount importance. According to the World Food Programme (2020), the global freight market is experienced in the transportation of vaccines in the 2 to 8 grad celsius range, however, vaccine doses require another level of cooling - as low as -80 grad celsius.

It leads to another level of challenge in the transportation process for air cargo players. The close collaboration between the World Food Programme, airlines, forwarders and logistics providers therefore is essential.

The preparedness of pharma handling capability has to be ensured, and plans for additional capacity where needed has to be devised. According to the World Food Programme, there are 12 dedicated temperature-controlled pharmaceutical handling facilities - Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, Cape Town, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Johannesburg, London, Madrid, Miami, New York JFK and Paris CDG.

Time others took it up

Their capabilities include for instance the ability to manage shipments requiring different temperature environments, real-time temperature monitoring and excursion alarms, full track-and-trace capabilities, and active temperature-controlled container handling. As other airports (e.g. in the Middle East) consider their post COVID-19 commercial future, pharmaceutical handling facilities must be inevitably be high on their wishlist if they do not already have them to be well prepared for the next outbreak/pandemic after COVID-19.

Too many hurdles

To ensure the rapid dissemination of vaccines we need the airlines helping out. However, there is another key challenge ahead of us: the anachronistic airline system.

Obviously, the often nonsensical barriers created by governments to make air services from Country A to Country B more complex is one of the major weaknesses in aviation. Thus, governments need to move mountains first to ensure any commercial barriers are removed for this major challenge.

The regulatory aspects of airline operations need to be reviewed and improved now, because the governments need to realise that air cargo is a very essential part of the fight against COVID-19. Therefore the following actions have to be taken prior to the kick-off of the distribution and transportation of the vaccine doses:

• Air cargo operations have to be excluded from any travel restrictions in order to ensure transport of life-saving medical products without disruptions.

• Standardised measures have to be in place at the beginning so that air cargo can move with minimal disruptions.

• The crew members (air cargo) shall be exempted from the 14-day blanket quarantine requirements, because they do not interact with the public in certain countries.

• Last, but not least, economic impediments (e.g. overfly charges, parking fees at airports and slot restrictions) shall be removed.

The entire aviation industry undoubtedly will play an important part in the world’s major push to attempt to eradicate the COVID-19 virus. Thus they have to realise the massive logistical challenges ahead of them when the life-saving vaccines are ready for the distribution to almost eight billion people worldwide with quality, reliability and agility.

The distribution of the vaccine will take the entire aviation industry to a whole new level. And the big players in the Middle East could play their part in this mammoth project - thanks to their geographical advantages and infrastructures at hub airports.

- Linus Benjamin Bauer is Managing Director at Bauer Aviation Advisory and visiting lecturer in air transport management at City University of London.