By Muhammad Al-Bakri
Around the world countries are rolling out their COVID-19 vaccination strategies. The vaccine distribution will be the largest and most complex peacetime logistical exercise in the history of mankind. With so many lives and livelihoods at stake, we have to get it right.
The crisis has brought into sharp relief three sets of challenges that must all be overcome if the inoculation programme is to stop the pandemic.
The first set of challenges are operational and relate to the availability of suitable infrastructure, equipment, personnel, vaccine and the funds to acquire and support them. The second group are organisational and political, with public health strategists in many places, including some of the best-resourced countries, having been caught off-guard by the second or third wave of infections. Third are societal and knowledge issues that relate to religious, cultural, social and even political resistance to vaccinations.
In this article, let us focus on the first set, as these are things within our industry’s reach and that we do well. This is not to diminish the vital role we must play in encouraging and supporting efforts to address the other challenges through engagement, education and awareness initiatives within our organisations, the communities we serve and with transport and public health authorities.
Across Africa and the Indian Ocean islands, healthcare systems rely heavily on air transport for the expeditious delivery of supplies. Unlike other parts of the world, for example North America or Europe, there are very few fast, safe and reliable transport alternatives – especially when time and temperature control are critical to saving lives and rebuilding economies.
We estimate it will require the equivalent capacity of 8,000 Boeing 747 freighter aircraft to move vaccines from the manufacturing centres to the main warehousing and distribution nodes around the globe. Thousands of smaller aircraft and other vehicles will be required to carry the vaccines to secondary distribution centres and outlying rural locations, from where they will be delivered to hospitals, clinics, medical practices and temporary vaccination facilities. Governments need to allocate sufficient funding for this. The logistics chain will only be as strong and secure as its weakest link!
A basic essential is having the appropriate handling and storage facilities with sufficient capacity as well as suitably qualified and skilled personnel to run them. Sufficient reserve or back-up capacity also have to be made available for contingencies. As the various vaccines being made available do not share the same cold-storage limitations, it will be necessary to have the ability and capacity to handle more than one type, especially if one of them suffers a manufacturing bottleneck or disruption. Also, some types of refrigerants are classified as “dangerous goods” and volumes are regulated, which adds a layer of complexity.
Airports, with their specialised equipment and handling operators, all play key roles in the global vaccine distribution chain. Operational airport personnel interact with a multitude of stakeholders to facilitate the rapid and safe delivery of large volumes of doses of the vaccines; whilst ensuring the recovery of passenger services which are essential for the social and economic development of our countries.
Customs, border management and security authorities will be pressed to inspect and verify shipments without delay. For the foreseeable future, COVID-19 vaccines will be the new liquid gold, commanding high value among illicit traders and criminals. Securing the vaccines from the point of production to where they are administered is paramount in order to prevent theft, tampering and hi-jacking. Care and attention must be given to secure extended supply lines, such as those involving remote areas, to ensure they are not vulnerable to attack or interference.
In addition to physically protecting the vaccines, warehouses and the transport infrastructure, robust cybersecurity will also be crucial as interference could manifest in different forms and attacks launched from anywhere.
To enable the vaccine distribution in sufficient volumes, governments will have to re-establish air connectivity as the COVID-19 crisis has dramatically shrunk the global route network from its pre-pandemic levels where there were 22,000 unique city pairings.
From a flight operations perspective, the campaign will require agility, innovation and close coordination and close attention to aviation and ground handling safety. The design and allocation of optimised routings, cruise flight levels and prioritised departures, approaches and landings will ensure a smooth traffic flow. In this regard, IATA is working closely with the Civil Air Navigation Services Organisation (CANSO) and Airports Council International (ACI) to solicit the necessary buy-in by government authorities, regulators and infrastructure service providers. In this regard, we are calling for the activation of the Planned Airways System Alternative (PASA) routes process, which will enable vaccine distribution flights to reach their destinations by the most expeditious routes.
All of these elements demand attention and to ensure consistency, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently issued its Guidance for Vaccine and Pharmaceutical Logistics and Distribution, which provides recommendations for governments and the logistics supply chain in preparation for the vaccine distribution campaign.
Reflecting the complexity of the challenge, the Guidance was produced with the support of range of partners including the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations (FIATA), the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), the UK Civil Aviation Authority, the World Bank, the World Customs Organization (WCO) and World Trade Organization (WTO). It includes a repository of international standards and guidelines related to the transport of vaccines and will be updated regularly as information is made available to the industry. IATA has also established a joint information-sharing forum for stakeholders, to accompany the guidance.
The challenges may seem daunting, and for some places they will be the biggest hurdles they have ever faced, but IATA and its partner stakeholders are standing by to provide guidance and support.