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Airlines working to get vaccines delivered.

December 18, 2020 Coronavirus (Covid-19), Headline News No Comments

A report by aviation guru Steve Creedy in Airlines Ratings says airlines worldwide are gearing up for the daunting task of distributing COVID-19 vaccines as jurisdictions approve their use in the fight against the pandemic, with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine already in use in the UK and cleared for use in the US, with a vaccine from Moderna awaiting approval and another from AstraZeneca is expected to be available next year. [Pictured: vaccines being shipped in cold storage by Korean Air]

With vaccines being progressively given the green light, the question now is how to get them to the people who need them, which is where the aviation industry and its expertise in moving time-sensitive freight around the world comes in.

Creedy says it won’t be easy, with the International Air Transport Association estimating that just providing a single dose to 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 Boeing 747 freighters and describing it as the biggest logistical challenge ever to face the aviation industry.

The slump in international passenger traffic due to border restrictions has also seen the global network shrink with a reduction in the amount of available “belly freight” carried in the cargo holds of passenger aircraft also reduced and at the same time, at least two of the vaccines require extremely low temperatures to remain viable, meaning temperature-controlled facilities and equipment as well as trained staff and robust monitoring capabilities, have to be available.

Border processes have also had to be changed to fast-track aircraft carrying COVID vaccines and remove limitations that could hold up the delivery process, with even the possibility that valuable vaccines could be tampered with or stolen taken into account.

Also some refrigerants are classified as dangerous goods and the US Federal Aviation Administration has said it is working with manufacturers, carriers and airports to provide guidance on transporting big quantities of dry ice, with US carriers are among those which have been working on the problem for some time.

United Airlines has reportedly already flown a charter flight from Brussels to Chicago with the Pfizer vaccine and American Airlines has been “stress-testing” its system with trial flights between Miami and South America involving pharmaceutical and cargo companies. It was already involved in transporting components of Phase II vaccine trials and has an established network of facilities and employees specializing in temperature-critical shipments and pharmaceuticals. It says vaccine shipments can be sent in “active containers” with built-in temperature controls that regulate and monitor shipments during transport, or “passive containers” that are cooled with cold packs or dry ice in an enclosed system designed to keep the product cold for the life of its journey.

The airline has a global network of temperature-controlled facilities, including a giant 25,000 sq. ft. facility in Philadelphia, and tracks the shipments through their journey and thanks to a 2019 overhaul aimed at better tracking and managing systems, it can address potential problems before they occur.

American Airlines Cargo president Jessica Tyler says, The American Airlines team is working collaboratively with cargo, pharmaceutical and federal partners so we are ready to safely and quickly transport an approved vaccine,’’ adding, “Despite the significant challenges the airline industry is facing, we’re working night and day to put our greatest strengths to use during this time of need — our network, our aircraft and our incredible team.”

In Asia, Korean Air has been preparing for cryogenic transport since September and recently transported a COVID-19 vaccine ingredient to Amsterdam and a vaccine production plant in Europe at temperatures below -60C, using specialized medical containers that could maintain ultra-low temperatures below  -70C without power for 120 hours.

Korean’s head of the cargo business division EUM Jae Dong said “Korean Air’s task force is reviewing all aspects concerning the vaccine’s transport, and we are developing a strong system and infrastructure for its safe and swift distribution,” adding, “Korean Air Cargo has a proven expertise in transporting  pharmaceutical items, and we were certified by IATA’s Center of Excellence for Independent Validators on Pharmaceutical Handling (CEIV Pharma) last June, a certification for the excellence in air transport of medicines.”

Singapore Airlines has had a task force working since May to ensure it is ready to transport vaccines, adding a range of tracking devices to allow producers to track shipments and view temperatures, with Singapore Airlines executive vice president commercial Lee Lik Hsin telling The Australian, “We have always seen cargo as an important part of our business so it was absolutely critical that we made ourselves available to carry the vaccine, when the vaccine is ready and mass production takes place,” adding, “It is certainly going to generate significant volumes to supply the whole world and, in the early days at least, it’s more likely to be carried by air than by ship because of its time sensitivity and speed to market.”

One of the airlines that will need to take the vaccine furthest is Australian carrier Qantas, with Qantas saying in its most recent market update that its freight arm was doing preliminary work on the logistics for transporting COVID vaccines at cold temperatures.

An edited report from Airline Ratings by John Alwyn-Jones

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