Vaccine Distribution and the Challenge of Air Cargo

The predicted fall announcement of a vaccine to prevent the of COVID-19 is only a beginning. The challenge then becomes, how does the logistics industry manage the distribution and our air carriers deliver the vaccines world-wide.


On September 9th in Geneva, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) urged governments to begin careful planning with industry stakeholders to ensure full preparedness when vaccines for COVID-19 are approved and available for distribution. The association also warned of potentially severe capacity constraints in transporting vaccines by air. 

Concentrating on the air cargo segment of the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, Brandon Fried, president of the Airforwarders Association may have expressed it best in his column in the Air Cargo News of September 9th. “The scarcity of available aircraft, inconsistent temperature control in idling planes, and delays caused by a shortage of ground handling operators are tremendous obstacles in the way of efficiently distributing the vaccine.”

At the present time, air shipments are the most prone to capacity shortages. There are just so many aircraft around the globe that can fly over five hundred miles per hour across continents and oceans, and hold tons of cargo. Ground distribution, while critical, can be spread across a several modes of transport, trucking, rail, and small package delivery companies. In addition, when ground services experience delays, even in dire shipping situations, temperature sensitive material can at least be temporarily stored in temperature-controlled warehouses waiting for available resources. 

Prior US Logistics Actions and Experience

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Air Cargo has performed admirably, most impressively, converting passenger aircraft into cargo carriers. This action mitigated the lack of capacity of dedicated freighters and belly-hold in passenger aircraft. US manufacturers also performed swiftly and effectively; where would we be without the ventilators, PPE, masks, and various sanitary sprays and applications that were efficiently shipped to hospitals and medical facilities in the US and to other countries. In typical US rapid and exceptional action, FEMA built a hospital in a New York City convention center in two weeks. 

The shipment of vaccines introduces and entirely new problem; tightly tolerated temperature controls. Vaccines, like pharmaceuticals need a constant air-cooled environment in order to be effective in preventing the virus. 

Several airlines, logistics companies and airports say they are ready to handle a COVID-19 vaccine once one is approved and shipped from factories. The pharmaceutical and life sciences business is more lucrative than general cargo because of its high value and security requirements, but it also requires specialized investments. Thankfully, pharmaceutical distribution and its attention to constant temperature monitoring has already set the stage for the distribution of vaccines. 

A response for under-developed countries is a device used by Fraport. This cargo airport currently uses 20 ultra-modern thermal transporters to make sure sensitive goods maintain their temperature in the short trip across the aircraft apron to the warehouse. This “mini-temperature controlled warehouse” may be an excellent solution for countries/airports that do not have permanent cold storage facilities. 

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says many of its members have sophisticated facilities and the specialized knowledge to process sensitive shipments. The challenge is there aren’t enough facilities in all corners of the world to handle a massive vaccine distribution. The trade association is urging governments, nongovernmental organizations and industry to identify and address areas of need. 

Once the needs have been established, it is vital for countries to have accessible cold storage facilities at or near airports and a distribution network/plan. Without a cold facility at the arrival point, vaccines will become useless sitting on aircraft waiting for pick-up. 

The Need for Speed and Efficiency

Speed and efficiency are often viewed as opposing ideas. In the case of this project, the two may be integrated before the aircraft is loaded and ready to fly, and even while it is in the air. The key to many observers in the cargo business is the planning, regulatory check-listing and work done before the airplane has taken off. It is much harder to play catch-up once the flight has reached its’ destination.  

IATA’s suggested in their report that working with regulators will help ensure that airport staff and crews could continue operating and processing cargo with valid certificates, despite lockdown measures in place in various countries.

Air cargo has been the only supply chain moving critical COVID-19 equipment around the world. It’s been a hugely large challenge to actually overcome some of the broader restrictions’ other officials and civil aviation authorities to make sure that permits have been issued quickly. 

The Need for More Capacity Via Transforming Passenger to a Cargo Plane 

When you already have 16,000 passenger aircraft grounded, finding additional capacity is like whack-a-mole. You fix one barrier and another crops up.  For those who have seen photos of passenger planes carrying cargo, the solution seems easily solved. However, there is a key proviso; although pre-certified to carry freight in bins, under the seats and other specified areas, if an airline wants to use seats to store cargo, it requires additional certification. 

I am certain that there IATA, TIACA and other aviation agencies and stakeholders are attempting to fashion a fast-track in the transformation process, with the approval of regulatory bodies.


Vaccine Volumes 

The numbers are staggering. There will be a need for up to 8 to 10 billion doses by some estimates. Glyn Hughes, the cargo guru at IATA in the analysis in his recent article in Cargo Airport-Airline Services blog said there would be a need for 8 billion doses. And that is for a single dose. Multiple doses and the figures become much larger.    

 Hughes further explained; “The volume of that size of shipment would fill more than 8,000 B747 aircraft.”

Once a vaccine is produced, then it is important and imperative that it is stored and distributed safely. There will need to be considerable focus on Africa, Latin America, South East Asia where there isn’t as much potential for production. It is critical that these countries have a distribution network ready and on the ground before any airplane lands in their country.

Putting It All Together 

Hyman Rickover, a US Navy Admiral, was the project leader for building the first atomic submarine.  This man had tens of thousands of tasks to assemble, prioritize, a time line and develop a “critical path” before any actual production and assembly took place. Unless we want to have a de-centralized, uncontrolled and incomplete distribution program, I believe we need a central point of leadership and decision making; a body that can quickly react and give guidance as the effort unfolds, and problems begin cropping up.  However, I have not heard of any news discussing the formulation of a global leadership group.

If such a group is assembled, there will be a need to be composed of scientists, pharmaceutical executives, air cargo and logistics executives, regulatory people and selected country representatives. They need to establish the protocols, the time-line, the priorities and the key country and industry personnel to contact as challenges arise.

And Who Should Not Take Leadership Role 

The one grim note in the overall picture and status to date is the World Health Organization. As a UN affiliated agency, they should be the natural leaders of this effort. But their performance at the outset of the pandemic was abysmal. The bulletin they released on January 10th* telling us that the virus was not transmitted human to human was not corrected until January 24th. 

There were several other inaccurate reporting incidents stemming from their using China as a source of information without site checking – the Wuhan lab was never investigated by any outside party – was a prime cause in the delay of necessary action by national leaders, and may have been a prime cause of the wildfire spread of the virus across the globe. By the time the world had accurate data, it was early March, months after the event outbreak at the Wuhan lab.*  

Some Nations Already Have Internal Distribution Plans in Place 

Some countries are already beginning to act on their own. This is both admirable and troublesome at the same time.  However, the crisis is not a time to sit on our hands, and Japan has already taken steps in organizing and preparing their own vaccine production for distribution throughout their nation as a first priority, and then to the countries without production facilities that are on their regular air routes. The steps Japan has taken may be a role model for other countries in the absence of a centrally staged operation. 

The United States also has a plan in place for national distribution – see article in current blog – and will coordinate shipment to other countries based on US carrier air routes and needs of countries without internal production capabilities. The plan will go into action once the vaccine is available and the US Food and Drug Administration has approved its use. 

In the IATA Press Release, said IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac; “Even if we assume that half the needed vaccines can be transported by land, the air cargo industry will still face its largest single transport challenge ever. In planning their vaccine programs, particularly in the developing world, governments must take very careful consideration of the limited air cargo capacity that is available at the moment. If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised,” 

* We only learned on September 19th that there were no bats at the Wuhan Wet Market as China had claimed which means the virus had to be sourced or developed at the lab. 

Joseph Alba
Mr. Alba was previously Editor of the Airport Press for 12 years covering both local as well as global aviation news. Prior to this, Mr. Alba had Executive positions in Systems Engineering and Marketing with IBM World Trade, and had foreign assignments in the Far East and Latin America earning three Outstanding Achievement Awards. Mr. Alba also directed a new function dealing with Alternate Fuels for Public Service Electric & Gas company in New Jersey and founded a Natural Gas Vehicle Consortium consisting of car company executives and fleet owners, and NGV suppliers in New Jersey. Mr. Alba was a founding partner of ATA, an IT Consulting company which is still active in Central and South America. After leaving the armed forces, Mr. Alba’s initial employee was the U.S. Defense Department as an analyst.


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