Against a background of pharmaceutical companies announcing breakthroughs in the development of vaccines against the Covid-19 disease, the International Air Transport Association (Iata) has issued guidance for the air cargo sector, to ensure that it was ready to handle, transport and distribute such vaccines on a large scale. Iata is the representative body of the global airline and air cargo industry, and the document it has published is entitled 'Iata’s Guidance for Vaccine and Pharmaceutical Logistics and Distribution'.
“Delivering billions of doses of a vaccine that must be transported and stored in a deep-frozen state to the entire world efficiently will involve hugely complex logistical challenges across the supply chain,” highlighted Iata director-general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac. “While the immediate challenge is the implementation of Covid-19 testing measures to reopen borders without quarantine, we must be prepared for when a vaccine is ready. This guidance material is an important part of those operations.”
The guidance was developed with the support of a wide range of specialist organisations, both international and national, public- and private-sector. The major ones involved were the International Civil Aviation Organisation, the International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations, the Pan American Health Organisation, the UK Civil Aviation Authority, the World Bank, the World Customs Organisation and the World Trade Organisation.
Iata’s guidance document included international guidelines and standards for vaccine transport, and it would be regularly updated as new information became available. Along with the issuing of the guidance, Iata also set up a joint stakeholder information-sharing forum.
The association pointed out that the global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines faced a number of significant challenges, which the guidance sought to address. For example, would temperature-controlled storage facilities be available and, if not, what could be done? Further, the roles and responsibilities of the different actors in the distribution process, especially government agencies and non-governmental organisations, had to be defined. This was necessary to ensure the rapid, safe, and equitable distribution of the vaccines.
Then there were the issues that directly and particularly involved the air cargo industry. The most important of these were capacity and connectivity, facilities and infrastructure, border management, and security.
Because of Covid-19, the global air route network had been significantly reduced. Governments had to re-establish air connectivity to make certain that there would be enough air cargo capacity to distribute the vaccines.
Regarding facilities and infrastructure, if the vaccine had to be distributed and stored while deep frozen (as the first vaccine to be developed had to be), then ultra-cold supply chain facilities would be essential. But some refrigerants were classified by the aviation sector as dangerous cargo and the volumes that could be transported on an aircraft were regulated, which could complicate matters. And there had to be adequate numbers of staff trained in handling vaccines.
To ensure no delays in the distribution of time- and temperature-sensitive vaccines, border control (both customs and health) procedures had to rapid and efficient. The same applied to granting overflight and landing permits for aircraft carrying vaccines.
Finally, security. Vaccines were very valuable and had to be protected from theft and tampering. Security procedures were already in place to protect vaccine shipments, but the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines would be on an unprecedented scale, so planning had to be done to ensure that security arrangements could likewise be scaled up.