Governments Urged to Plan Now for ‘Mammoth and Complex’ Task of Vaccine Distribution

Governments around the world are ordering millions of vaccines for their citizens. For example the U.S. has ordered more than 800 million vaccines from at least six manufacturers, while the U.K. has signed deals with several vaccine developers which together will provide 340 million doses – enough for every U.K. citizen to receive five doses.

But as anyone who has ever placed an order for goods will know, the purchase is one matter, delivery is quite another. The COVID-19 vaccines will need to be distributed globally, on a massive scale, and in line with pharmaceutical cargo regulations. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac has called it air cargo’s “mission of the century”.

IATA is urging governments to begin careful planning with industry stakeholders to ensure full preparedness when vaccines for COVID-19 are approved and available for distribution. The association also warns of potentially severe capacity constraints in transporting vaccines by air.

The potential size of the delivery is enormous. Just providing a single dose to 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 747 cargo aircraft. Land transport will help, especially in developed economies with local manufacturing capacity. But vaccines cannot be delivered globally without the significant use air cargo.

Air cargo plays a key role in the distribution of vaccines in normal times through well-established global time- and temperature-sensitive distribution systems. This capability will be crucial to the quick and efficient transport and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines when they are available, and it will not happen without careful planning, led by governments and supported by industry stakeholders.

IATA’s de Juniac says governments must plan now. “We urge governments to take the lead in facilitating cooperation across the logistics chain so that the facilities, security arrangements and border processes are ready for the mammoth and complex task ahead.”

The security of these vaccines will also be a huge undertaking. Imagine the catastrophic effects should a vulnerability in the supply chain allow vaccines destined for millions of people to be sabotaged and contaminated. Vaccines will also be highly valuable commodities, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by organized crime and terrorist groups. Arrangements must be in place to ensure that shipments remain secure from tampering and theft. Processes are in place to keep cargo shipments secure, but the potential volume of vaccine shipments will need early planning to ensure that they are scalable.

Vaccines must be handled and transported in line with international regulatory requirements, at controlled temperatures and without delay to ensure the quality of the product. While there are still many unknowns (number of doses, temperature sensitivities, manufacturing locations, etc.), it is clear that the scale of activity will be vast, that cold chain facilities will be required and that delivery to every corner of the planet will be needed. Priorities for preparing facilities for this distribution include the availability of temperature-controlled facilities and equipment as well as the availability of staff trained to handle time- and temperature-sensitive vaccines. Facilities will also need robust monitoring capabilities to ensure the integrity of the vaccines is maintained.

Working effectively with health and customs authorities will be essential to ensure timely regulatory approvals, adequate security measures, appropriate handling and customs clearance. This could be a particular challenge given that, as part of COVID-19 prevention measures, many governments have put in place measures that increase processing times. 

IATA has therefore issued a list of priorities for border processes:

  • Introduce fast-track procedures for overflight and landing permits for operations carrying the COVID-19 vaccine
  • Exempt flight crew members from quarantine requirements to ensure cargo supply chains are maintained
  • Support temporary traffic rights for operations carrying the COVID-19 vaccines where restrictions may apply
  • Remove operating hour curfews for flights carrying the vaccine to facilitate the most flexible global network operations
  • Grant priority on arrival of those vital shipments to prevent possible temperature excursions due to delays
  • Consider tariff relief to facilitate the movement of the vaccine

On top of the transport preparations and coordination needed, IATA says governments must also consider the current diminished cargo capacity of the global air transport industry. With the severe downturn in passenger traffic, airlines have downsized networks and put many aircraft into remote long-term storage. The global route network has been reduced dramatically. The World Health Organization, UNICEF and Gavi (the vaccine alliance) have already reported severe difficulties in maintaining their planned vaccine programs during the COVID-19 crisis due, in part, to limited air connectivity.

“Even if we assume that half the needed vaccines can be transported by land, the air cargo industry will still face its largest single transport challenge ever. In planning their vaccine programs, particularly in the developing world, governments must take very careful consideration of the limited air cargo capacity that is available at the moment. If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised,” said de Juniac.   

IATA’s new online platform which helps the air cargo industry match shipping needs with the availability of infrastructure capabilities and certifications of service providers across the value chain, is timely. ONE Source lists the latest operational information on airlines, airports, cargo handling facilities, freight forwarders, ground handlers, shippers, and trucking companies. All critical information contained on ONE Source has been verified by IATA to help ensure its accuracy. The platform is free for all service providers across the air cargo supply chain.

“Air cargo has been essential in the global fight against COVID-19, transporting vital equipment and medicines to those who need them most. However, with over 3,500 differently sized cargo handling facilities worldwide, the industry until now has lacked visibility on the capacities and services these facilities can offer. The need for greater transparency is even more critical in the current context. ONE Source addresses this by providing a single reference point for up-to-date infrastructure and certification data, helping save time and keep air cargo moving,” said Glyn Hughes, IATA’s Global Head of Cargo.  

Scrambling to purchase the vaccines and secure adequate numbers for their citizens has been the primary focus for governments, who must now switch to planning mode to ensure those vaccines arrive safely and securely.

Consideration must also be given to the global nature of the pandemic. Effective distribution in a handful of countries will not eradicate the virus completely. Vaccines need to safely reach every affected country to prevent further spread and potential mutations of COVID-19.

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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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