When the COVID-19 vaccine finally arrives, it will take an unprecedented effort from the travel and transport industry to make sure it reaches everyone across the world. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that it will take not hundreds but thousands of jumbos to ship it across the planet. “The potential size of the delivery is enormous. Just providing a single dose to 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 747 cargo aircraft. Land transport will help, especially in developed economies with local manufacturing capacity. But vaccines cannot be delivered globally without the significant use of air cargo,” the IATA said in September.
Shipping the COVID-19 vaccine…
Why does this matter? Because even with accelerated productions, vaccines are going to be in short supply, at least in the first few months of roll-out. This precious commodity will have to be stored and shipped in extremely regulated environments to make sure they are effective. While Moderna’s vaccine can be stored at a manageable -20C, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine needs to be preserved at Arctic-temperatures of around -70C. Experts say that the ultimate success of the vaccination programme will depend as much on the delivery and distribution of the shots as it will on the efficacy in treating COVID-19.
… is not going to be easy
The logistical challenge is so massive that the United Nations, the largest purchaser of vaccines globally, is talking to 40 airlines to help deliver vaccines to the poorer countries of the world. But it won’t be easy. As Axios points out, most cargo around the world travels in the belly of passenger aircraft, and not on freight planes. Which means the actual shipments would involve many more flights than the IATA estimate of 8,000 cargo-lifting 747s.
Also, given that airlines across the world have grounded major portions of their fleet, the cost of airlifting the shots will rise manifold. Add other factors such as a severely curtailed workforce and border closures and you get a sense of just how complex the operation will be.
But airlines are coming in to help
It’s a mammoth logistical challenge. But airlines have a massive incentive to solve the problem. Emirates is already on the project. “We’re working on trying to move this Pfizer vaccine in specialty designed containers on our planes, in our holds, and in the cabins, and keeping them at that level through the distribution point,” Tim Clark, the airline’s president told CNBC. “We have the chillers, we have the freezers, we have the logistical control for the airline to get these vaccines into multiple parts of the world where others cannot.”
In the US, United too is on the mission. ‘We’ll be ready to do our part,’ airline CEO Scott Kirby announced last week.
Ultimately, it will take a superhuman effort to make sure the vaccines reach everyone. Transporters, governments, healthcare authorities will have to launch a cooperative global effort, and work closer than ever to zap COVID. The good news is that they’re on it.