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Are We Prepared for Vaccination Distribution?

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has released guidance to ensure that the air cargo industry is ready to support the large-scale handling, transport and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine.

The potential size of the delivery is enormous. Just providing a single dose to 7.8 billion people (the number considered to be the minimum necessary) would fill 8,000 747 cargo aircraft. And vaccines cannot be delivered globally without the significant use of air cargo.

The IATA Guidance for Vaccine and Pharmaceutical Logistics and Distribution provides recommendations for governments and the logistics supply chain in preparation for what will be the largest and most complex global logistics operation ever undertaken. 

Reflecting the complexity of the challenge, the guidance was produced with the support of a broad range of partners, including  the International Civil Aviation Organization,  International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations,  International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, Pan American Health Organization, U.K. Civil Aviation Authority, World Bank, World Customs Organization and World Trade Organization. The guidance includes a repository of international standards and guidelines related to the transport of vaccines and will be updated regularly as information is made available to the industry. Accompanying the guidance, IATA established a joint information-sharing forum for stakeholders.

“Delivering billions of doses of a vaccine that must be transported and stored in a deep-frozen state to the entire world efficiently will involve hugely complex logistical challenges across the supply chain.  While the immediate challenge is the implementation of COVID-19 testing measures to re-open borders without quarantine, we must be prepared for when a vaccine is ready.  This guidance material is an important part of those preparations,” said IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac.

Key challenges addressed in IATA’s Guidance for Vaccine and Pharmaceutical Logistics and Distribution include:

  • The availability of temperature-controlled storage facilities and contingencies when such facilities are not available
  • Defining roles and responsibilities of parties involved in the distribution of vaccines, particularly government authorities and NGOs, to assist safe, fast and equitable distribution as broadly as possible
  • Industry preparedness for vaccine distribution which includes:
    •  Capacity & Connectivity: The global route network has been reduced dramatically from the pre-COVID 22,000 city pairs. IATA says governments need to re-establish air connectivity to ensure adequate capacity is available for vaccine distribution.
    • Facilities and infrastructure: The first vaccine manufacturer to apply for regulatory approval requires the vaccine to be shipped and stored in a deep-frozen state, making ultra-cold chain facilities across the supply chain essential. Some types of refrigerants are classified as dangerous goods and volumes are regulated which adds an additional layer of complexity.  Considerations include availability of temperature-controlled facilities and equipment and staff trained to handle time- and temperature-sensitive vaccines.
    • Border management: Timely regulatory approvals and storage and clearance by customs and health authorities will be essential. Priorities for border processes include introducing fast-track procedures for overflight and landing permits for operations carrying the COVID-19 vaccine and potential tariff relief to facilitate the movement of the vaccine.
    • Security: Vaccines are highly valuable commodities. Arrangements must be in place to ensure that shipments remain secure from tampering and theft. Processes are in place already, but the huge volume of vaccine shipments will require early planning to ensure that they are scalable.

IATA urged governments to prepare for the mammoth task of vaccine distribution back in September. Recent announcements from BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and others make this call even more urgent. Air cargo has not only kept the aviation industry ticking over this year, but it has provided an essential service for countries, industry and individuals. It now faces its biggest challenge ever. 

The whole supply chain will need to act fast and be flexible, not least because of the varying requirements on storage for each vaccine. BioNTech and Pfizer say their vaccine needs to be kept at around -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit) while it’s transported, which is 50 degrees Celsius colder than currently used vaccines. Moderna says its vaccine can be kept in freezers typically available in pharmacies, and in a refrigerator for 30 days. BioNTech is currently working on a formulation which would allow the vaccines to be shipped at room temperature, although this is not expected to be ready for the initial rollout.

A report by CNN found that the availability of dry ice – needed to keep the vaccines at the desired temperature – could be a potential logistics issue. For example, several dry ice producers in the U.S. told CNN they’ve already had offers for their entire output, with regional shortages already being reported. Others however, including Operation Warp Speed, have said they are confident there will be no shortage of dry ice.

IATA will host a webinar on vaccine and pharmaceutical logistics and distribution on November 24. 

Read the guidance at IATA

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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