Ready for a vaccine: How to distribute a Covid-19 cure – a web series in association with Peli BioThermal

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Welcome to Ready for a vaccine, an Aviation Business News web series analysing how the air cargo industry is preparing to – and in some cases starting to – safely and speedily transport Covid-19 vaccines around the world.

An extensive article features in the just-published Winter 2020 issue of Airline Cargo Management, based on interviews with companies from across the industry spectrum. This web series, brought to you in association with Peli BioThermal, goes into even greater depth.

Each of the interviews conducted for the article – with Pharma.Aero, Peli BioTermal, Finnair Cargo, Etihad Cargo, IAG Cargo, Delta Cargo and DoKaSch – will be presented in full over the course of the week, as we ask whether the air cargo industry is really prepared for the scale of handling, transporting and distributing these vaccines.

We start with industry association Pharma.Aero and IAG Cargo.

The air cargo industry is preparing to distribute Covid-19 vaccines
The air cargo industry is preparing to distribute Covid-19 vaccines


Introduction: Pharma.Aero joined forces with the International Air Cargo Association (TIACA) 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.

Here, Pharma.Aero secretary general Frank Van Gelder answers some key questions about the industry’s preparedness.

What is the air cargo industry doing to prepare for distributing potential Covid-19 vaccines, and how ready is it?

Based on the Project Sunrays Air Cargo Readiness Survey conducted in September, a large part of the industry has started or said they would soon be engaging and collaborating with the pharma shippers, as well as their logistics partners and subcontractors.

There were considerations of 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.

The absence of information would make investment decisions challenging and risky, respondents said. 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.

Pharma.Aero top concerns
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.

With many of the vaccine candidates requiring extreme sub-zero transport conditions, how will the challenge of storage temperatures be overcome?

Vaccine candidates which have frozen or deep-frozen product temperature conditions are looking at passive packaging and/or active containers. It is important that airlines and cargo handlers ensure availability of cold chain space in their cargo terminals and equipment to meet the storage temperature requirements. In addition, guaranteeing the supply of dry-ice will be critical in maintaining the temperature requirements of the vaccines, especially in the early stages of the distribution.

Do you believe the air cargo industry as a whole has done enough to prepare? Has there been increased collaboration?

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 more prepared now than before.

Can you describe TIACA and Pharma.Aero’s role and how Project Sunrays will help? What are the next steps between now and wider vaccine distribution?

The end objective of Project Sunrays is to deliver useful guidelines to ensure the proper and safe handling, storage, and transport of the high expected volume of Covid-19 vaccines.

Project Sunrays will publish a white paper on the findings we have gathered from the first two work packages, which comprise of pharma shippers’ logistical demands, expectations and requirements and the air cargo industry’s responses and strategies towards the Covid-19 vaccine supply chain from the two industry questionnaires. Following that and based on the findings of the first three work packages, we will prepare guidelines and recommendations for the global air cargo industry.

There will be many parties involved in the process. What are your biggest concerns?

Based on the Project Sunrays Air Cargo Readiness Survey, the top concerns of the air cargo industry are temperature excursions, lack of adequate infrastructure, as well as lack of air cargo supply chain transparency.

The above video illustrates a day in the life of a Crēdo Cube, a passive and reusable shipper from Peli BioThermal qualified to hold chilled medical materials at a safe temperature for up to five days

IAG Cargo

Introduction: IAG Cargo has reacted quickly to the Covid-19 crisis by maintaining a global network and demonstrating innovative thinking and the ability to adapt to new situations. Chief commercial officer John Cheetham believes the company, with its partners, is ready to rise to the new challenge of vaccine distribution.

IAG Cargo chief commercial officer John Cheetham
IAG Cargo chief commercial officer John Cheetham

How is IAG Cargo preparing for Covid-19 vaccine distribution?

It is worth remembering where we come from. IAG Cargo has invested heavily over the past five years in our ‘Constant Climate’ product, the temperature-control product that’s geared toward the pharmaceutical industry. We’ve got world-class facilities at London Heathrow Airport and in Ireland, and most recently we completed some investment in our Madrid hub. We believe they are the best temperature-controlled facilities in the south of Europe. So we’re in a good place in terms of having the correct infrastructure in place and the product.

We also have a team of specialist salespeople who are focused solely on selling our Constant Climate product all around the world. They are the ones who link in with the healthcare arms of the freight forwarding industry and, with the freight forwarder, will speak with pharmaceutical companies to understand what their needs and requirements are so our product remains relevant and world-leading.

Through the current period, vaccine distribution has not stopped, there is a requirement across the globe for them. 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 have over 100 Constant Climate approved stations around the world, where our people are trained to be able to handle this product.

What will the next steps be?

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, 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 industry to make sure we can provide the best service possible for the distribution of this critical product.

From the analysis we have done so far, there’s a clear preference – particularly in the developed world – to locally distribute. It’s easy to overestimate the requirement that everything is going to be moved on long-haul air freight. That’s probably not likely to be the case. But we’re prepared either way and as more information comes out about countries, what is distributed and in what method, then we’re prepared to deal with it.

IAG Cargo

Do you feel there has been enough industry collaboration?

There’s an absolute desire across this industry to make this work 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 be travelling. This is a truly global effort for the good of the world.

Despite the challenges and the gravity of the situation, it must be exciting to be a part of the solution to the Covid-19 crisis?

It is not really a new feeling for us; I feel passionately about getting up in the morning every day and knowing I’m helping to facilitate world trade. I’m moving vaccines today, for example. Covid-19 vaccine distribution is another level, another thing to add to that. This is our day job to make these things happen.

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