Satu Dahl examines those unexpected and rapidly evolving developments that the pharmaceuticals air cargo sector is having to contend with currently

    As the Covid-19 pandemic grips countries across the world, it is having a considerable effect on companies involved in the pharma cool chain, whether they are cool container suppliers, cargo airlines, or hubs housing delicate
    pharma products.

    One hugely important pharma hub in the US is Miami International Airport (MIA), which has seen an increase in pharmaceutical shipments since the pandemic took hold. Dimitrios Nares, section chief of marketing at Miami-Dade Aviation Department, explains that during May some 1.5 million kilos of pharma passed through the airport, a figure that is 11 per cent higher by volume than in May 2019.

    Volga Dnepr

    “We are also seeing more PPE (personal protective equipment) come through our airport to address global Covid-19 medical needs,” notes Nares. “In addition to having the pharma-handling expertise of six CEIV pharma-certified companies operating at MIA, we have a large number of freighter airlines – currently 27 – which have actually increased their daily cargo flights since passenger flights around the world have been grounded due to the pandemic and much of the cargo capacities have shifted to freighters.”

    Miami International Airport

    The biggest carriers for pharma at MIA have historically been Amerijet, Latam and Turkish Cargo. They all operate freighters out of the airport and Amerijet and Latam have earned their CEIV pharma certification for their MIA stations. Amerijet, which has a big presence in Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean, moves large volumes of pharmaceuticals out of Puerto Rico – a major producer of pharmaceutical products, according to Nares.

    Turkish Cargo moves large volumes of pharma as well: the airline saw an increase of 63.7 per cent in its cargo volumes at MIA this May compared with last year. The carrier attributed most of this growth to increased capacity with its MIA-GRU route, in which the top products were pharma, medical supplies and PPE.

    Latam, which has an extensive air route network in Latin America, saw an increase of almost 114.5 per cent in its cargo volumes at MIA in May. It also attributes much of the growth in its numbers to pharma shipments and other medical-related products.

    Most of the increases in pharmaceuticals shipments that MIA saw in the month of May clearly coincide with increased demand related to Covid-19, as Nares confirms. “We saw a 52 per cent year-on-year increase in exports for the month of May for our top pharma export category – Composite Diagnostic/Lab Reagents, Exc Pharmaceut [these are substances used to carry out laboratory tests].

    “Our second top pharma export in May was Medicaments Nesoi, Measured Doses, Retail Pk Nesoi (medicines in measured doses), which increased by 61 per cent year on year. Our fourth-largest export, immunological products, in measured doses for retail sale, increased by 33 per cent. We also saw a huge increase of some 326 per cent for our fifth-largest pharma export, vaccines for human medicine.”

    Most of MIA’s pharma cargo historically goes to Latin America and the Caribbean region, and Nares confirms the airport continued to see the same top countries in May for its pharmaceuticals exports, with Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, Panama and Mexico all recording increases in volumes. While import volumes of pharma were substantially lower than exports, MIA also witnessed an increase of 24 per cent in its top pharma import category, namely Composite Diagnostic/Lab Reagents, Exc Pharmaceut.

    Supply chain disruption

    The Covid-19 pandemic has sent shock waves through global markets and disrupted supply chains in various ways. Nares says countries are seeking greater local manufacturing and near-sourcing to reduce the risk of supply chain disruptions as experienced during the pandemic – and some are strategically stockpiling pharma products. Global markets are shifting to different supply chains, too.

    “For example, we saw India – which over the past few years has been our top import country for pharmaceuticals by volume – be surpassed by Ireland, which was previously not even in our top 20. We are seeing shifts in markets and supply chains for pharma and increased freighter operations and cargo charter flights,” says Nares.

    “We are also seeing rising demand from countries hardest hit by the pandemic. Latam Cargo has been shipping much greater volumes of active pharma to GRU, SCL and GIG in Brazil.” The increased demand for pharma has also allowed Latam to activate MIA as a pharma transit station, managing to connect regions using routes that were not previously available. The airline is now helping pharma products reach destinations such as UIO, SJO and GUA under the same high standards as direct routes.

    Yulia Celetaria, global director of pharma at AirBridgeCargo Airlines, part of the Volga-Dnepr Group, says that while pharmaceutical and healthcare products have always been regarded as speciality cargo with a high level of quality requirements, Covid-19 has intensified these requirements. It has also put the speed of delivery at the forefront, as countries needed urgent deliveries of PPE and other medical equipment amid the spread of the pandemic. With so many restrictions being imposed almost every hour by various countries and regulators, cargo carriers have had to adapt their operations simultaneously to meet the sky-rocketing demand for transportation of PPE worldwide.

    Adapting to change

    From the viewpoint of operations, Celetaria explains that the carrier has witnessed certain trends. Ability to leverage regional outbursts is one of them, with rapid changes in regional demand to be met in terms of capacity and the availability of personnel due to the spread of Covid-19. Carriers were expected to guarantee capacity first to China, then from China and other Asian countries to Europe and later on to the US and Latin America.

    “Furthermore, carriers had to negotiate quarantine and sanitation measures for their personnel, which included cancellation of the 14-day quarantine for crew upon arrival in another Covid-affected country, availability of PPE for all the personnel, disinfection of cargo and aircraft and so on,” explains Celetaria.

    Demand for sterile services is another trend. With the spread of Covid-19, carriers across the world have introduced sterile flights that embrace disinfection of cargo, aircraft, medical checks of the personnel and PPE in place. “This relates not only to pharmaceutical shipments, but to all cargo being delivered,” notes Celetaria.

    With the unstable situation and capacity constraints, customers and carriers also value long-term co‑operation as a guarantee for stability of future business and deliveries. Forecasting and a state of readiness is important too and Celetaria says that, although it is hard to predict exactly what will happen given the current circumstances, it is better to be prepared. For instance, with every country working under a Covid-19 vaccine programme, it is evident that this traffic will show up eventually. “From our side, we work with ULD providers, pharmaceutical companies and stakeholders to make sure we are prepared to accommodate this cargo when necessary.”

    Another main priority is flexibility and having the ability to adapt to the changing environment regarding schedules and lanes and making sure that the global supply chain of life-saving pharmaceuticals, where airlines play a focal role, remains uninterrupted.

    Locations seeing the most demand for pharmaceutical cargo have changed in parallel with the spread of Covid-19. First, AirBridge Cargo saw a huge demand from Europe to China to facilitate the country’s battle against coronavirus and, when it became evident that they were dealing with a pandemic rather than epidemic, there was a surge in cargo deliveries from China to Europe with the US following.

    “Almost 80 per cent of all our Covid flights were operated from China to Europe, with cargo being concentrated in two or three major regional airports such as Beijing, Shanghai, Frankfurt and Amsterdam instead of a more expanded network,” explains Celetaria.

    During the first six months of 2020, Volga-Dnepr Group transported more than 25,000 tons of Covid-related cargo, among them PPE, medical equipment, mattresses, beds, artificial respiration units and disinfection vehicles. While masks and other PPE were delivered onboard B747 freighters, more complex, oversized cargo was transported onboard an Antonov An-124-100/150 and an Ilyushin Il-76TD-90VD. “This is the way our ‘cargo supermarket’ works, when we guarantee our customers a ‘one-stop-shop’ service and offer the most cost-efficient solutions using a unique fleet of freighters,” comments Celetaria.

    With more than three decades of history, Volga-Dnepr Group has more than once met the challenges of an epidemic, the most recent one being the fight against Ebola. Therefore, Celetaria says, the carrier did not have to adjust its operations from scratch as it already had procedures in place.

    The Covid-19 spread has, however, affected all areas of the airline’s activity, and changes have included provision of PPE for all the personnel working on the frontline and adjustment of special working conditions for crew. These included dedicated crew corridors in the airports (in order to exclude contact with other passenger flows), cancellation of 14-day quarantine upon arrival, special rooms in the hotel away from other guests and disinfection of aircraft and cargo.

    Home offices for other personnel have been quite successful, according to Celetaria, involving the usage of the latest technology and the company’s best communication practices; as the global director of pharmaceuticals points out, Volga-Dnepr Group “has been working on a global scale with regional offices throughout its entire existence”.

    Keep supply chains moving

    Given the current circumstances, demand is naturally rising for temperature-controlled container solutions. DoKaSch Temperature Solutions managing director Andreas Seitz says the demand for specialised cargo solutions for pharmaceuticals has been especially high within Europe for some time now, but the company is also seeing rising interest in other regions.

    pharmaceuticals, DoKaSch-TS

    DoKaSch provides long and short-term container rentals and Seitz notes that, while there is a clear trend towards longer rentals, many forwarders have required more flexibility in the past few months. “Especially in March and April, the supply chains were disrupted regularly, which then caused shipments to last longer. That was no problem for the goods transported in our Opticoolers, because they are active containers and can keep the pre-set temperature level for a long time,” Seitz explains.

    “However, it was not always possible to return the Opticoolers within the planned rental period. We usually reacted customer-oriented and did not charge the clients extra in order to help keep supply chains as stable as possible.”

    Seitz explains that, despite some challenges, the company has been doing very well during the pandemic. “First of all, as mentioned before, it was not always possible to return the empty containers in time. However, we handled this situation quite well because we have a reserve in case of sudden demand peaks, or problems like these. Furthermore, our partner network stood together in these challenging times and did everything necessary to keep operations running. In turn, we were able to fulfil all demands despite the partly disrupted supply chains.”

    “The pandemic proved how important the pharmaceuticals supply chains are and that everyone, from producer to forwarder, knows their responsibility to keep them operational,” he concludes.