According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), providing a single dose of the vaccine to 7.8 billion people will require the use of 8,000 Boeing 747 cargo aircraft – and planning needs to begin now.
“Safely delivering COVID-19 vaccines will be the mission of the century for the global air cargo industry,” said IATA’s director general and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, in a statement.
“We urge governments to take the lead in facilitating cooperation across the logistics chain so that the facilities, security arrangements and border processes are ready for the mammoth and complex task ahead.”
The air cargo industry has long played an important role in vaccine distribution, providing well-established time- and temperature-sensitive systems — which will be crucial to the quick and efficient transport of COVID-19 vaccines, notes IATA.
Dozens of research teams around the world are working to develop a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, using a mix of established techniques and new technologies.
There are currently 29 vaccines being tested in multiple human trials, running simultaneously around the world.
Once a vaccine is approved for use, licensing and large-scale manufacturing takes place. But without proper planning, these vaccines won’t be able to fly the skies.
Among the major concerns cited by IATA is the availability of temperature-controlled facilities and equipment, along with trained staff. Robust monitoring capabilities will need to be in place too.
And then there are the current border restrictions, which will need to be eased. Permits for operators carrying the vaccine will need to be fast tracked, and the flight crew members exempted from quarantine requirements to ensure cargo supply chains are maintained, says IATA.
Security is another concern, with IATA noting that vaccines will be highly valuable commodities. Shipments will need to be secured and protected from tampering and theft.
Cargo capacity impacted by pandemic
The aviation industry has already been playing a critical role throughout the pandemic, delivering essential supplies to first responders, with the Boeing 747 in particular key to these efforts.
The newest version of the cargo 747 is based on the passenger model, the 747-8. At just over 250 feet, it’s the longest of all the jumbos, with new engines and enhanced aerodynamics.
Cargo operators such as Silk Way Airlines, Atlas Air, Air Bridge Cargo (ABC) and Cargolux have been leading logistical efforts to support first responders and will likely continue to do so when vaccine deliveries ramp up.
Moscow-based ABC, for instance, has 17 747Fs — four 747-400Fs and 13 newer 747-8Fs. (The “F” stands for Freighter.)
“Air cargo solutions have never been more important than they are now to global health services. Currently, our international teams dispatch multiple flights daily to ensure that vital medical supplies protect those in need,” said Tatyana Arslanova, executive operating officer for ABC, in July.
She pointed to the 747-8F’s climate-controlled cargo holds as one of the big plane’s assets.
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“Its three compartments can have different temperature settings from 4C to 29C, giving us extra opportunities to transport perishable cargo, such as temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals and life-saving medical equipment.”
In spite of the presence of established operators, IATA warned that the global air transport industry’s cargo capacity has been severely impacted by the pandemic, with airlines downsizing their networks and putting aircraft into long-term storage due to diminished demand.
About half of the world’s air cargo is transported by passenger planes, with shipments placed in the belly of the plane with luggage.
IATA acknowledged that land transport will also play an important role in vaccine distribution — especially in developed economies with local manufacturing capacity, “but vaccines cannot be delivered globally without the significant use of air cargo.”