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Aviation Will Be Critical Player In COVID Vaccination Effort

While much of the world has watched with great anticipation the work of scientists and researchers to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, very few people have given any thought as to how the vaccine will actually get from the manufacturers to the health care providers who will perform the vaccine injections.  The aviation industry will be a key player in this supply chain.

Two groups that have been working almost as hard as the scientific community include the International Air Transport Association and the Cool Chain Association, which have released tools and guidance to ensure those in the logistics industry have precise shipping requirements for each vaccine along with the necessary cold storage and transportation capacity.  At least one of the vaccines must be kept at minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit.  This will require specially designed thermal boxes that utilize dry ice to maintain that temperature during the shipping process.  Many logistics providers won’t have such ultra-cold storage capabilities to handle the Pfizer product, but other vaccines, such as the one being developed my Moderna are less temperature sensitive.

Critical information for vaccine logistics includes where and how vaccines are being manufactured; the origin and destination for transportation; under which conditions they must be handled; and how they will be secured.

The primary issue facing the airfreight sector is how to scale up and adapt existing infrastructure, processes and resources that comfortably support routine vaccine programs for an expected surge of emergency shipments to immunize billions of people worldwide.  Industry representatives say timely and accurate sharing of information, as well as multilateral partnerships among pharmaceutical companies, logistics providers, governments and humanitarian organizations are necessary to ensure deliveries get to administration points quickly and without spoiling.

IATA issued guidelines for overcoming logistics risks associated with product safety, verifying partner capabilities, operations, infrastructure, adequate trained workforce, border clearance, communications and data connectivity, and security.  And the organization recommends governments take into consideration that the air transport system is operating at three-quarters of normal capacity because airlines sharply downsized and parked aircraft in response to the plunge in passenger traffic associated with coronavirus.

“In planning their vaccine programs, particularly in the developing world, governments must take very careful consideration of the limited air cargo capacity that is currently available. If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised, including the last mile,” the IATA document says. “[Global health and aid organizations] have already reported severe difficulties in maintaining their planned vaccine programs during the COVID-19 crisis due, in part, to limited air connectivity. Therefore, accessing capacity will be achieved only through cautious planning.” 

IATA also urged governments to temporarily grant additional traffic rights to air carriers for operations carrying COVID-19 vaccines, where restrictions may apply.