IATA sounds alarm over Covid-19 vaccine capacity crunch

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The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has sounded the alarm over global air cargo capacity constraints which may slow the delivery of Covid-19 vaccines.

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.

Speaking during a conference call with media on Wednesday, IATA’s head of cargo Glyn Hughes noted that even just a single dose of the vaccine for each of the world’s 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 B747 freighters.

Safely delivering Covid-19 vaccines will be the mission of the century for the global air cargo industry.” – IATA director general and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac.

Capacity in the air cargo sector is already tight having been hit hard with the sharp drop in belly hold capacity as passenger airlines parked significant portions of their fleets. An estimated two-thirds of the world’s commercial aircraft fleet is still grounded, the importance of which is underscored by the fact that pre-Covid, roughly half of all cargo flew in passenger belly holds.

“Safely delivering Covid-19 vaccines will be the mission of the century for the global air cargo industry,” added IATA’s director general and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac.

He also urged governments to take the lead in facilitating cooperation across the logistics chain so that the facilities, security arrangements, and border processes are ready for what is surely set to be a mammoth and complex task.

Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance echoed the complexity involved saying: “Delivering billions of doses of vaccine to the entire world efficiently will involve hugely complex logistical and programmatic obstacles all the way along the supply chain.”

The air cargo supply chain has long played a key role in global vaccine distribution, providing well-established time- and temperature-sensitive procedures and infrastructure which will be crucial to the global roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines. But as de Juniac underscored, even assuming half the needed vaccines can be transported by land, “the air cargo industry will still face its largest single transport challenge ever”.

Aside from capacity shortages, other key obstacles identified by Hughes include adequate availability of temperature-controlled facilities and equipment, as well as the need for robust monitoring capabilities to ensure the integrity of the vaccines is maintained.

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While vaccines require strict temperature control compliance, the sheer volume of doses an already constrained environment raises new challenges. IATA’s Glyn Hughes notes that if the temperature requirement of the vaccines falls within a typical range of between 2-8 degrees C, that in itself would present a massive coordination effort. If there is a requirement to freeze the vaccines to minus 80 degrees C, this would present a n even greater challenge, he said.

“As the world has gone into lockdown at different degrees of severity, dealing with local and national endemic outbreak volumes, that’s also meant that there’s been a difficulty sometimes in getting qualified staff to the airport to help offload the cargo, to process it through the facility,” said Hughes.

“When you consider the various temperature changes both in processing the cargo through perhaps an airport, then onboard the airplane at 39,000 feet in the air and upon arrival and then local distribution… it’s critical when moving something as sensitive as that, that there are the right facilities in place,” he explained. “And then when you add the scale of the distribution to the magnitude of the challenge of the need for those facilities, you can understand where the industry needs to start preparing now together with governments and the manufacturing industry as well.”

Other important considerations identified by Hughes include security, as well as border processes such as overflight and landing permits.

Arrangements must be in place to ensure that shipments remain secure from tampering and theft. Although processes for keeping air cargo secure are in place across the globe, Hughes says early planning is crucial for the scaling of these solutions as vaccine volumes ramp up. “Working effectively with health and customs authorities will, therefore, be essential to ensure timely regulatory approvals, adequate security measures, appropriate handling, and customs clearance,” he said.

The warnings of capacity shortages from a surge in Covid-19 vaccine shipments have a visible precursor. With the global airline route network reduced dramatically from the pre-COVID’s 24,000 city pairs, the WHO, UNICEF and Gavi have already reported severe difficulties in maintaining their existing planned vaccine programmes, in a large part due to limited air connectivity.

“The whole world is eagerly awaiting a safe COVID vaccine,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF executive director. “It is incumbent on all of us to make sure that all countries have safe, fast, and equitable access to the initial doses when they are available.

“As the lead agency for the procurement and supply of the COVID vaccine on behalf of the COVAX Facility, UNICEF will be leading what could possibly be the world’s largest and fastest operation ever. The role of airlines and international transport companies will be critical to this endeavour.”

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