Air Cargo Management

Air cargo’s greatest challenge: Covid-19 vaccine distribution

Covid-19 vaccine

The world is eagerly awaiting the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, which many see as the only escape route out of the crisis we are all facing.

The air cargo industry will play a vital role in the distribution of these vaccines. Companies are generally already well versed in distributing vaccines and solid processes are in place. But the huge volume of Covid-19 vaccine shipments required will mean that companies must ensure these processes are scalable. That requires comprehensive preparations, collaboration and transparency.

“We’re talking about a vaccine that is one of the most anticipated and wanted vaccines in the history of mankind, at least from such a large distribution point of view,” says Finnair Cargo head of global sales Fredrik Wildtgrube. “The Covid-19 vaccine will most certainly be a supply chain challenge for the decades.”

So is the air cargo industry prepared to handle, transport and distribute these vaccines?

Emirates vaccine
Deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines are now taking place around the world, including this one by Emirates SkyCargo to the UAE.

Sharing information

At association level, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has released guidance on the topic, providing recommendations for governments and the logistics supply chain. The Cool Chain Association (CCA) has also encouraged industry collaboration. Pharma.Aero and the International Air Cargo Association (TIACA) joined forces in August 2020 to launch ‘Project Sunrays’, which is specifically designed to help the air cargo industry get ready for the “unprecedented challenge” of Covid-19 vaccine distribution.

A global survey, collecting feedback from airlines, ground handlers, freight forwarders, airport operators and solution providers, was conducted in September as part of Project Sunrays. The results showed that only 28 per cent of the industry felt prepared for Covid-19 transportation globally.

Pharma.Aero secretary general Frank Van Gelder says the survey showed that “a large part of the industry has started or would soon be engaging and collaborating with the pharma shippers, as well as their logistics partners and subcontractors”.

He adds: “There were also considerations in additional service offerings such as introducing priority shipping and express services for the Covid-19 vaccines and medical supplies. In terms of new infrastructural developments, extra temperature-controlled storage space, airside thermal protection solutions and digital platforms (for real-time monitoring) were being considered and reviewed.”

Top air cargo industry concerns over Covid-19 vaccine distribution, as identified in the Project Sunrays Air Cargo Readiness Survey conducted in September. Click to enlarge.

A lack of information makes investment decisions “challenging and risky” though. “It is therefore important that air cargo players start mapping out their existing capabilities and communicating with pharma shippers and their air cargo industry partners to evaluate infrastructure investment decisions as early as possible,” he explains.

Van Gelder believes much is now being done to prepare. “Many airport communities are now actively engaged in planning and preparations for the distribution of the vaccines, which was not quite happening just a few months ago. This is a positive sign that the air cargo industry is collaborating and is more prepared now than before.”

Based on all the information it has collected, Pharma.Aero will release guidelines ad recommendations for the global air cargo industry in a white paper, Van Gelder says.

Some clear concerns have been identified though: temperature excursions, lack of adequate infrastructure and a lack of air cargo supply chain transparency. “The air industry will need to act on short notice with limited information,” explains Van Gelder. “Information which is available needs to be shared with all the different stakeholders to ensure readiness.”

Special teams

Preparations for distributing Covid-19 vaccines are well underway among the companies interviewed for this article.

Etihad Cargo

“The first action we are taking, over the past weeks, is preparing by getting information and sharing what we know,” says Etihad Cargo Global Cool Chain Solutions Manager Fabrice Panza. “The aim is to know whether we can scale operations depending on the requirements. Looking at these requirements, the volumes are huge and we don’t have any timeline for the moment. Temperature and packaging are other huge elements.

“We decided to create a dedicated Covid-19 workforce specifically for this reason; to consider each of these elements and imagine scenarios from an operational point of view. We are currently creating a full plan for different destinations.”

Panza says there are two strands of communication to maintain. “We have a scenario where we co-operate closely within the current organisation and we have a scenario where depending on the demand, we are building ad-hoc responses. We work closely with all stakeholders to share this information and make sure they are aware of what we can do – and in some cases what we can’t do – and what developments will be.”

Preparations are in full swing at IAG Cargo, too. “We’re in a good place in terms of having the correct infrastructure in place and the product,” says chief commercial officer John Cheetham. “We also have a team of specialist salespeople who are focused solely on selling our Constant Climate cold chain transportation product all around the world.

“With the Covid-19 vaccine specifically, we are working closely with our suppliers to make sure there aren’t any bottlenecks in terms of specialist unit availability. We’re making sure that our hubs are prepared and we have the capacity for it, and we’re also making sure that all our stations globally are accredited and the training is in place.

“We’re in a good place to help this global effort to move vaccines around. We are working on the intelligence behind it, understanding what the flows are going to be, when they’re going to be, and whether there are going to be batches ready or whether this is going to be a slow trickle. There’s still a lot of unknowns but we are working very closely with the industry to make sure we can provide the best service possible for the distribution of this critical product.”

Cheetham says analysis undertaken by the company shows a “clear preference” to locally distribute the vaccines. “It’s easy to overestimate the requirement that everything is going to be moved on long-haul air freight,” he notes. “That’s probably not likely to be the case. But we’re prepared either way.”

Removing sandbags

Finnair Cargo’s Wildtgrube says his company is also well positioned to tackle the upcoming challenge. “From an infrastructure point of view, we can look at our ultra-modern fleet as well as our facilities, especially in Finland and the Helsinki cool terminal. The A350-900 is still very new for example and one feature of it is the capability of cooling down some of the cargo compartments to meet with as consistent a transport temperature as is possible.

“Our network is also very well positioned. Finland is on top of the world, geographically, and serves the shortest route between Europe and Asia.” This is particularly important when “we are fighting against one resource, which is time. Time is of the essence when we look at these transports.”

Finnair Cargo

The challenge of Covid-19 is a new one the industry must face, Wildtgrube says, but the company can build upon these key pillars. “Covid-19 changed the way we look at aviation. A lot of aircraft are on the ground. Capacity that was thought of as bread and butter for the industry is potentially not there. How are the partners that are active and have these capabilities integrating their systems and visibility, and especially their information so that we can achieve as much transparency as possible?

“If this information does not exist with the various stakeholders, as we are still talking about very fragmented transportation chains, the risk is that we will lose this very valuable resource of time, because we are fighting against the clock – everybody is – not just from a demand perspective but from a durability perspective. By sharing information we can take away some sandbags to do with time.

“Strong collaboration between the various stakeholders and decision makers is definitely required so that we can eliminate unnecessary risk and allow stakeholders to be part of the same result of vaccinating people of the world.”

USA-headquartered Delta Cargo can rely on its network of 49 certified pharma stations globally providing temperature-controlled transfer capability, according to a spokesperson. “Delta has extensive capacity to transport the vaccines internationally, and we are ready to be creative and meet the needs of our customers and, most importantly, humanity.”

Delta Cargo

The company has been preparing for the task of shipping Covid-19 vaccines since the summer, according to the spokesperson. “We have been working with the industry and government stakeholders to understand the requirements and how Delta’s pharmaceutical capabilities and network align with that.

“We have a vaccine task force that is looking into all aspects of Covid-19 vaccine shipments and working with healthcare companies and freight forwarders to discuss Delta’s capabilities and the network. We are focused on ensuring that our cargo capabilities are closely aligned with the specific need of transporting the various vaccines and treatments that are being developed.”

Container solutions

With many of the vaccine candidates requiring extreme sub-zero transport conditions, Finnair’s Wildtgrube notes that the supply of suitable containers will be critical. “Without them we might not reach the ambient temperature that is required for the vaccine,” he says.

Fortunately, many companies are offering solutions. Etihad Cargo, for example, has partnered with shipping solutions company CSafe Global to ensure it “has enough capacity on the equipment side”, reports Panza.

Peli BioThermal

Peli BioThermal has “extensively expanded” its deep frozen product range in response to Covid-19 vaccine shipping requirements, according to the company’s director of worldwide marketing Adam Tetz.

“Our new offerings will ensure pharmaceutical companies have the correct temperature-controlled packaging at all phases of drug discovery and distribution with temperature ranges of -80°C to -20°C. Peli BioThermal’s experienced engineers expanded the company’s range to support the growing need for increased deep frozen temperature ranges and payload capacities as pharmaceutical companies and their supply chains prepare to bring Covid-19 vaccines and therapeutics to market.”

The products use phase change material (PCM) and dry ice systems to provide frozen payload protection with durations from 72 hours to 144+ hours. Payload capacities range from one to 96 litres for parcel shippers and 371 to 1,686 litres for pallet shippers.

“These new deep frozen solutions are ideal for short-term vaccine storage, redirect courier transport of vaccines from freezer farm hubs to immunisation locations and daily vaccine replenishment to remote and rural areas,” says Tetz.

“The rate at which we have been able to produce the new adapted product range is unprecedented. We’re providing temperature-controlled packaging solutions for every stage of the pandemic recovery with our teams working two shifts, seven days a week, to keep up with building completed products and subcomponents.”

Germany-based DoKaSch is also ramping up operations. “We have not only increased our stocks, but also expanded our network of airlines,” says CEO Andreas Seitz. “Another important aspect will be the efficient usage of assets. A shortage of capacity is very likely at the moment and the whole industry has to adapt to it. That is why it is important to reduce the turn-around times of containers to achieve a high availability of transport options.


“We are focusing on this aspect right now and are currently discussing with our partners how to achieve that goal. We will establish new depots, for example in India, which is an important location for the global pharma production. However, these are all very general approaches to prepare for the upcoming transport of vaccines. As long as it is not clear how high the demand for different destinations will be, we have to prepare as well as possible, but cannot plan every specific detail.”

Looking at storage temperatures specifically, Seitz expects that most of the vaccines will ultimately be transported “in the 2-8°C range”. He explains: “To transport them all in time will require all available solutions on the market. Of course, freight capacity will be a limiting factor, but when airlines and forwarders work together and pool their resources, I am sure that not only the transport of vaccines, but also the usual supply of life-saving drugs will be ensured at all times.”

Global effort

Until vaccines are approved by authorities and ready for delivery, a degree of uncertainty will remain. As this article has revealed, much continues to be done around the globe to prepare for this unknown date. But potential roadblocks remain, and the wider product-to-patient chain must be considered.

“What we do as an airline is the transportation phase from the airport to the airport, but a lot is happening before, and a lot is happening after,” explains Panza. “Our hope is to mitigate the effect before and after by providing the best equipment solution and controlling the process.

“We want to be adaptive, and will need one or two weeks’ notice to be sure that we can have the right aircraft in place, that we have the right optimisations. It’s part of our job to adapt to these elements.”

Finnair Cargo

Finnair’s Wildtgrube cautions that unless preparations are thorough, “looking at the total supply chain end-to-end there could be challenges that could lead to unwanted results for the distribution of the vaccine. Waste is not something that can be entertained and must be avoided at all costs.”

He adds: “One thing that has come to our notice is that as the container is opened, some vaccines have to be used within 24 hours and if you have a country where the population is scattered over a wide area, it might be a totally different logistical challenge coming up in the future. Maybe you are not transporting products but instead people into a certain location for the vaccination.”

Another consideration is the need for two or more doses of a vaccine. Many such questions remain, Wildtgrube says. “Our action now is to be as active as possible and as information becomes available we are going to be super-relentless in order to check them with our existing capabilities. If we see any possible risk we will integrate that back into the community and see how these can be neutralised.”

Peli BioThermal’s Tetz notes the importance of “building networks, having redundancies and back-up plans and being adaptable to unexpected vaccine demand, delivery delays and spikes in localised infection rates”.

Vaccine distribution

Addressing possible concerns, DoKaSch’s Seitz notes: “This is an exceptional situation and usual planning patterns are not flexible enough to solve the challenges ahead. That is why it is important that pharmaceutical producers, together with their forwarders and suppliers, work on a joint solution for the distribution of their products. They have to take responsibility for the preparation of capable and reliable supply chains. The key to achieving this goal is proper communication with every stakeholder along the supply chain to have the right solutions and capacities ready and at the right place when needed.”

Summing up air cargo’s current state of preparedness, IAG Cargo’s Cheetham concludes: “There’s an absolute desire across this industry to make this work as seamlessly as possible. Ignore the opportunity for cargo, that pales into insignificance compared to getting the world economy back to some sort of normality, allowing people to travel. This is a truly global effort for the good of the world.”

*This feature is taken from the Winter 2020 issue of Airline Cargo Management, which you can read here.

Aviation Business News has also run a five-part web series called Ready for a vaccine, in association with Peli BioThermal, looking at how company’s from across the industry spectrum are preparing to distribute Covid-19 vaccines.

All parts are available to read: part one features Pharma.Aero and IAG Cargo, part two features Peli BioThermal, part three features Finnair Cargo, part four features Etihad Cargo and part five features Delta Cargo and DoKaSch.

Sign In

Lost your password?