The global rollout of Covid-19 vaccines is the means to the end of the pandemic, with air cargo playing a vital part. Here, Jason Holland gathers some industry success stories and assesses the path ahead
This feature first appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Airline Cargo Management, which you can read in full here.
In the dark of night, a freighter aircraft touches down at the international airport, with ground crew ready to unload its special cargo as quickly – but as safely and efficiently – as possible. A camera operator is also there to eagerly film events and ultimately share the good news: a shipment of Covid-19 vaccines has been transported successfully.
It’s a scene that is becoming increasingly common all around the world – perhaps with fewer cameras as time goes by – but one which is played out as the result of the efforts of a range of people, companies and organisations. And of course, the chain of events does not stop there; the vaccines must make their way to patients.
Vaccines have been described as ‘the only way out’ of the Covid-19 pandemic. Media reports have also been quick to play up the ‘miracle’ nature of the speedy creation of the various vaccines that are being rolled out in countries across the globe. While perhaps not a ‘miracle’ in the strictest sense of the word, the way the air cargo industry as a whole has risen to the ongoing challenge of helping to distribute Covid-19 vaccines is an astounding feat of collaboration, co-ordination and communication.
“The air cargo industry has an integral role to play in the distribution of the vaccines – it is an industry that can offer vital speed of transportation and sophisticated cool chain technologies, manned by trained teams who are experienced in handling this kind of cargo,” says IAG Cargo’s head of sales Darren Peek. “To date, the industry has shown its professionalism and expertise, and I think we can all take pride in the role air cargo is playing in supporting the fight against Covid-19.”
Sanjiv Gupta, CEO of SpiceJet cargo division SpiceXpress, notes that while the pharmaceutical industry was already transporting cold chain cargo and vaccinations before Covid-19, the ongoing pandemic “has brought about a better sense of recognition of the supply chain effort, and has highlighted its importance”.
“The industry stakeholders need to work with a collaborative strategy,” he says. “The entire Covid-19 vaccination effort cannot be undertaken without all stakeholders putting in their bit. Government agencies, ministries, handling agencies, freight forwarders, carriers and custodians have to work even more closely, even if it means working closely with corporate competitors to deliver the vaccination to the final point of inoculation.”
New products and services have been imagined, created and are now in operation. Among the many examples, Cathay Pacific Cargo has developed a “next-generation track-and-trace system” called ‘Ultra Track’; Lufthansa Cargo has launched a premium product offering vaccine shipment monitoring called ‘Covid-19 Temp Premium’; and UPS has enhanced its dry ice production capabilities and launched new mobile freezer storage units.
SpiceXpress has launched its own cold chain product called ‘Spice Pharma Pro’, according to Gupta. The intent is to provide a seamless end-to-end logistics solution to manufacturers and secondary distributors. “We have partnered with some of the leading cold chain logistics companies in India to create a sustainable cold chain network,” he says. “Our validated cold chain boxes lined with phase-change material (PCM) and vacuum-insulated panels ensure zero temperature excursions. Our modified data loggers and real-time tracking-portal ‘SpiceSense’ demonstrate our IT readiness.”
Peli BioThermal is another company to have innovated in response to the Covid-19 challenge. It has launched a range of deep frozen temperature controlled packaging options with temperature ranges of -80°C to -20°C.
Giving an update on the company’s progress, director of worldwide marketing Adam Tetz says: “We’ve adapted several of our PCM shippers to work well with dry ice as a coolant for extended durations of several days to allow shipments of the vaccines around the world.
“We’ve also added two payload sizes available for our ‘Deep Freeze’ dry ice shipper. We are seeing a huge demand for all sizes, configurations and temperature ranges for our shippers. This demand is all around the world from pharmaceutical manufacturers, university hospitals and small couriers. It’s a universal problem that all stakeholders are seeking to resolve.”
Ramping up operations
Although the air cargo industry is already playing a crucial role in Covid-19 vaccine distribution, the scale of operations globally is not quite at the level many predicted, or still might be needed in the days ahead. Some companies are reporting that they are not yet seeing high levels of requests for vaccine services.
“As of yet, vaccine transports are not affecting air cargo much,” says DoKaSch’s CEO Andreas Seitz. “Since the availability of vaccines is still limited, the amounts transported at the moment are rather low. Furthermore, most vaccines are produced on a regional level and are distributed by trucks. However, that is most likely to change with more vaccines coming to the market.”
Volga-Dnepr Group’s marketing director Fedor Novikov largely concurs with that assessment, stating that the biggest operational need is still to come. “With massive vaccination starting in some countries, we have seen that the governments mostly rely on regional distribution with the land operators,” he explains. “The international global distribution of large batches is expected to start closer to Q2.”
The company transported its first CanSino vaccines in November and is working under delivery options for that vaccine, the Sputnik V and others. Novikov reports that Volga-Dnepr has seen increased demand for “peripheral cargo” – vials, injection syringes, equipment for mass vaccine production, and so on – to “guarantee stable and uninterrupted vaccine manufacturing”.
Pharma.Aero secretary general Frank Van Gelder says the global delivery of Covid-19 vaccines is subject to several factors “including but not restricted to speed of approval by the local health authorities and production capacity”.
“The first vaccines to be distributed today are the ones from Pfizer BioNTech, AstraZeneca and Moderna,” he notes. “To date, the vaccines’ global airfreight tonnage is still fairly limited. Due to the time sensitivity of the initial shipments, the integrators are playing an important role in the air transportation and distribution.”
There have been plenty of success stories in Covid-19 vaccine distribution across the industry so far, though. As one of the world’s largest delivery services companies, FedEx is well positioned to “be a part of this historic moment”, says Joe Stephens, FedEx Express senior vice president of global engineering and business transformation.
“FedEx has a long history of supporting relief efforts,” he notes. “We see it as our purpose and responsibility to use our network and expertise during this time of global need. We spent months planning and preparing to handle the transportation of vaccines.
“On 14 December, at 5.53am ET, a FedEx Express courier made the first US vaccine delivery to Boston Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts. Our couriers throughout the country worked hand in hand leading to on-time deliveries across 28 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico that first day.”
Delivery of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is now being ramped up. “Our goal is to move Covid-19 vaccine shipments as safely and quickly as possible,” Stephens says. “We are prepared to ship Covid-19 vaccines to more than 220 countries and territories for as long as is necessary to help eradicate Covid-19. We are working with our healthcare customers, as well as governments and non-governmental organisations on plans to distribute vaccines as they are approved and ready for shipment.”
Elsewhere in the US, one of Delta Cargo’s earliest successful vaccine transportations was from Detroit to Atlanta and San Francisco. The journey was monitored in Delta’s ‘Vaccine Watch Tower’, which enables full end-to-end visibility for all vaccine shipments. With 24/7 centralised monitoring and customer reporting, the tower works closely with flight operations to ensure the safe and secure transportation of the vaccines at the required temperature.
Rob Walpole, Delta Cargo’s vice-president, says: “Within three hours of being engaged, Delta Cargo had the vaccines in hand and on their way. Our successful Covid-19 vaccine shipments prove what we’ve known for a long time: that we’re ready and able to take on more in the all-hands-on-deck domestic and global distribution effort of this life-saving vaccine.”
Across the border, Air Canada Cargo conducted an exhaustive review of its operations, procedures, training and facilities as well as third-party agreements in 2020 in preparation for transporting the Covid-19 vaccines.
“We also worked closely with our customers and other supply chain stakeholders to understand their requirements,” reports director, cargo transformation Janet Wallace.
“We achieved IATA’s CEIV Pharma certification in July. By December we started seeing bookings for shipments of vaccines and consumables into Canada. We handle all shipments with utmost care and have stringent procedures in place. There is no room for error here, all shipments are successful.”
A story recently shared by one of Air Canada Cargo’s operations managers in Canada stands out, though. “His wife is a frontline health worker and she recently received her first dose of the vaccine,” Wallace relays. “That dose came from a shipment that had been transported by Air Canada Cargo, and received by her husband and his team at one of our facilities. In my books, that is a success story. Air Canada Cargo has a tremendous contribution to make, and so close to home.”
In Asia, Singapore Airlines has also made strong progress, with its geographical location, network connectivity and pharmaceutical handling capabilities at Singapore Changi positioning it as a key transit hub for the transportation and distribution of pharmaceuticals, according to a spokesperson.
“Amid rapid developments in the testing and production of Covid-19 vaccines globally, Singapore Airlines has made preparations to meet one of the largest and most important logistical challenges in recent history – the safe and effective distribution of these vaccines around the world,” the spokesperson comments.
“[We have] been actively engaging various stakeholders across the supply chain and in pharmaceutical export markets to ensure [we are] well-positioned to transport the vaccines with speed and reliability. As such, Singapore Airlines delivered the first shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccines to Singapore on 21 December 2020 on board one of its Boeing 747-400 freighters. This was also the first Pfizer‑BioNTech vaccine shipment to be delivered to a country in Asia.”
In India, SpiceXpress has been involved in the transportation of vaccines manufactured by Serum Institute and Bharat Biotech. In January, SpiceXpress supported India’s government in transporting vaccines to 24 locations across the country – equating to 19 million vaccine doses. “We also had the opportunity to be a part of the movement of the first international consignment from India to Bhutan,” reports Gupta.
IAG Cargo’s Peek proudly notes that his company has already transported over a million doses of the Covid-19 vaccines across the world using its specialist ‘Constant Climate’ service, “alongside transporting medical equipment, other types of vaccines, Covid-19 testing kits and PPE, as well as continuing to transport everyday products the world needs daily”.
He says: “Through our ‘Constant Climate’ network, consisting of three main hubs at London Heathrow, Madrid Barajas and Dublin airports, we have already successfully delivered Covid-19 vaccines to many parts of the world including the Canary Islands, the Balearic Islands, Ireland and the Americas, and we delivered Melilla’s first doses on an Air Nostrum from Malaga.”
The challenge ahead
Much of the hard work still remains to be done, and there are many challenges to overcome. “It is expected that more than 50 per cent of vaccines will be air freighted once the global distribution starts with massive vaccination across the globe,” says Volga-Dnepr Group’s Novikov.
“Stakeholders [are] getting ready and ramping up their capabilities. The last 3-4 months have been devoted to this hot topic and the industry understands the scale of responsibility it will be charged with in terms of uninterrupted vaccines supply chains. From our side, we have strengthened our positions and service and are also taking additional steps through a 360-degree approach to embrace all the areas of our business.”
He sees the biggest challenge as being “the lack of dedicated infrastructure in some of the airports with no cargo storage facilities, certified and experienced personnel or special equipment to guarantee stable onload/offload of temperature containers”.
Ensuring the consistent handling temperature of the shipment remains a formidable task, according to Singapore Airlines. “We need to ensure it is not exposed to outside heat, especially in Singapore where the temperature on the tarmac can rise to 40°C. We must also ensure that our handling agents abide by the stringent handling processes to reduce the possibility of temperature excursion. We have procedures in place to ensure temperature integrity of the product.”
DoKaSch’s Seitz thinks that most of the upcoming (and existing) vaccines will be transported and stored in the range between 2-8 °C. “Therefore, the need for transport solutions will clearly increase in 2021 and it will not stop there,” he explains. “This is where our ‘Opticoolers’ [containers] will become relevant, since they are designed for that temperature range. Covid-19 will not simply disappear after one successful vaccine campaign. Instead, we will have to learn to live with it for quite some time.
“The air cargo industry takes an important role in this. First, it will support the initial vaccine distribution, which started recently and is going to take up most of 2021. However, it will not be enough. It is highly likely that we will need follow-up vaccine campaigns and the transport of suited medication. During all this time, air cargo is going to support the transport around the world and make sure that everyone has access to the vaccines.
“Solutions like ‘preighters’ and the quick and uncomplicated co-operation of every important stakeholder showed how resilient and flexible the air cargo industry is. In turn, I am sure that the upcoming vaccine transports will be handled well, no matter the scale.”
The ability to anticipate problems and prepare accordingly will be a vital skill, as experience has shown. “Our teams began preparing for a potential vaccine last summer, in anticipation that a Covid-19 vaccine would need to be kept at an ultra-low temperature,” reports IAG Cargo’s Peek. “They evaluated the whole process, importantly looking at how much dry ice might be needed. Thanks to this preparation, and our existing world-leading cool chain facilities, IAG Cargo responded quickly to the demand to transport the vaccines.”
Peli BioThermal’s Tetz also sees future roadblocks to overcome. “The real challenges will come as more vaccines are approved for emergency use and the volume of vaccine production ramps up for them all,” he says. “Then, all aspects of cold chain logistics to support vaccine distribution will be more stressed than they are today.”
Maintaining co-operation is normally a difficult challenge but is perhaps simpler now given what is at stake.
Van Gelder says Pharma.Aero and TIACA (The International Air Cargo Association), through Project Sunrays [which is designed to help the air cargo industry get ready for Covid-19 vaccine distribution], “earlier called for the industry to start advance preparations, have open communication, and adopt a community collaboration approach”.
“Air cargo will play a critical role in transporting these life-saving products around the globe, supporting national and international objectives to achieve global immunity,” he concludes. “In ensuring that the shipments move in a fast, secure, reliable, transparent and compliant fashion, the industry has risen to the challenge at both local and global levels.
“We have seen several air cargo hubs, including members of Project Sunrays, establishing local task forces in advocating open communication and preparing their air cargo community for the logistical mission. Collaborative and co-ordinated solutions on air cargo community level will provide the optimised approach to achieving the required logistical success.”