Preparations by airlines, cargo handlers, airports, logistics companies, equipment providers and NGOs for transporting and distributing COVID-19 vaccines have been moving forward rapidly, reports Will Waters
Following a survey in September commissioned by TIACA and Pharma.Aero to gauge the level of readiness within the air freight sector for the challenge of COVID-19 vaccine logistics, the two organisations called for urgent industry collaboration to address “a concerning lack of readiness”.
Two months on, much has happened and the two associations have begun preparing a follow-up survey to assess how much progress has been made and where there are still gaps in companies’ capabilities and confidence. And in the meantime, there are lots of anecdotal indications that preparations by associations, airport cargo communities, airlines, cargo handlers, airports, logistics companies, equipment providers and NGOs have been moving forward rapidly.
According to the results of the first ‘Sunrays air freight readiness’, completed by airlines, freight forwarders, ground handlers, airport operators and solution providers, the majority of the industry players said they had begun making preparations to handle, store, transport and deliver COVID-19 vaccines. However, only 28% of the 181 respondents said they felt well prepared, while 12% felt very unprepared, leaving 60% somewhere in between. And there was a significant deficit identified in the number of companies able to store or transport shipments at deep-frozen or ultra-deep frozen temperatures down to -80°C.
Positive elements of the results included 20% of the respondents stating they were already involved in logistics of COVID-19 vaccines in clinical trials, and nearly two out of three (65%) reporting that their existing processes were compliant with clients’ requirements. Nearly half (49%) said they will introduce additional services, and a further 42% said they may. More than one third (36%) said they will invest in additional physical and/or digital infrastructure, and a further 41% said they may.
And the majority of the industry players said they had begun preparations to handle, store, transport and deliver COVID-19 vaccines – including setting up dedicated teams, engaging with partners, mapping and upgrading their capabilities, as well as developing new services.
Areas of priority
Areas of priority recommended by the partners, on the basis of the study’s findings, include a focus on industry collaboration between pharma and air cargo sectors; improving visibility and transparency; building adequate capabilities; getting the support from regulators to speed up processes and remove cumbersome procedures.
To strengthen industry collaboration, the associations recommend that vaccine manufacturers involve all their air cargo logistics providers as early as possible, including airports and ground handlers. And each air cargo stakeholder should map its existing capabilities at each location and make this information available; dry ice, active containers, trained staff, and cold chain space availability should be secured early; and infrastructure investment decisions should be made as early as possible.
And to improve visibility, the use of tracking and monitoring devices should be encouraged and the approval process for their safe use in flight needs to start as soon as possible; and rollout of digital solutions and data-sharing platforms should be accelerated.
Better prepared now
Nathan De Valck, Chairman of Pharma.Aero, observed that companies at the time of the survey were still in the early stages of preparation and there were still a lot of unknowns. Speaking with CAAS in mid-November, he said: “We hope to find a much higher level of preparedness now. Almost everyone (in the original survey) said they wanted to prepare, and 40-50% said they were in the process of preparing but were not there yet. I do think that when the big volumes start to be shipped, probably in February to March, companies will be a lot better prepared.”
He said there were also signs of greater cooperation already in certain areas. “We were already collaborating quite well with BRU and Pharma.Aero. But it has accelerated, not only on a local level.” For example, the Covid crisis has also encouraged cooperation between associations such as Pharma.Aero and Tiaca, and with Iata.
“I think we are really seeing the industry joining forces and looking to support one another,” said De Valck.
Task forces launched
De Valck’s local cargo community at Brussels Airport (BRU) in early October revealed some of the work being done by its BRUcure Taskforce – building on long-standing collaboration within the cargo community and with pharma manufacturers, strengthened by the location of BRU in the heart of Europe’s pharma manufacturing cluster.
The first job of the BRUcure Taskforce, which includes more than 40 air logistics stakeholder organisations, was “to define all of the possible scenarios for the various types of vaccines”, with each type demanding a different method of transport, packaging and storage.
“In addition to temperature sensitivity, there are quite a few unknown elements, such as the manufacturing location of the vaccines, the number of doses per person, the volume that a cargo pallet with vaccines will occupy – taking into account the packaging, and so on,” notes BRU’s Samuel Speltdoorn, who is heading the Taskforce. “All companies active in temperature-sensitive transport at our airport are now working together to offer an answer for each scenario.” An application is also under development for the BRUcloud digital platform that will make it possible to track the COVID-19 shipment in real time at any moment in the transport chain.
Neighbouring Amsterdam Schiphol’s pharma cargo community has also been collaborating since September to ensure the airport community’s temperature-controlled supply chain is ready. A taskforce led by Air Cargo Netherlands (ACN), Schiphol Cargo and Air France KLM Martinair Cargo, including shippers, pharma producers, forwarders, airlines, ground handlers and trucking companies, has been working on up to four possible ‘vaccine scenarios’, based on different temperature ranges and discussing methods of mapping capacity, from ground handlers to airlines, as well as back-up solutions.
Secure trade lanes
Ferry van der Ent, Director of Business Development for Schiphol Cargo, said: “The most important thing is to provide a safe, secure, and reliable trade lane, especially when there is a peak in demand, so that we can guarantee the vaccines are tamper-free, with no temperature excursions and handled properly. The Dutch Civil Aviation Authority is also very supportive in granting permissions for COVID-19 related ad-hoc flights.
“We are now focusing on a fast and swift handling process on the tarmac, getting the vaccines as soon as possible to the end-customer via the distribution channels, rather than storing them at the airport. As a back-up option we have to be prepared to collaborate across all modes and with everyone in the supply chain and explore all options.
“That could mean collaborating with other Good Distribution Practices (GDP) centres and facilities and connecting with our colleagues in ocean, for example at the nearby Amsterdam and Rotterdam harbours where they have GDP-certified cooling areas and lots of capacity.”
Collaboration with Customs
Under the initiative, the community will continue to work closely with Customs and governmental bodies to ensure faster Customs release and priority Customs checks. There will be a focus on ensuring the proper distribution of storage to guarantee sufficient cool room capacity. This could include pre-warnings and data exchange, as well as increased security and strict handover protocols.
Community members are also looking at ways to speed up handovers between parties in the cool chain, including last-minute delivery, quick pick-up, and airside delivery or pick up.
Thinking as a community
Enrica Calonghi, Global Head of Pharmaceutical Logistics at Air France KLM Martinair Cargo, commented: “We need to consider the whole journey, especially the last mile and especially for places where it can be a challenge to get the last mile right. We still don’t know the how, the where to, the where from, or the when. We have to work collaboratively and that is one positive that 2020 has brought us.
“We should not just think about capacity in the air, but also on the ground, from the trucks, to the warehouse space, and we have to think as a community.”
Key role for cargo handlers
Cargo handlers have also been making preparations individually, as well as within local community initiatives.
In October, Worldwide Flight Services (WFS) launched its Project Coldstream taskforce to co-ordinate its response. Headed by EVP for innovation Mike Duffy, Project Coldstream is working closely with airlines, forwarders and logistics providers, government agencies and industry organisations such as Pharma.Aero and TIACA to “clearly understand the temperature and handling requirements of the various vaccines”. The group will be responsible for “developing in-house solutions to the challenge, ensuring the preparedness of WFS’ pharma handling capability, devising plans for additional capacity where needed, and working closely with WFS’ airline customers”.
WFS said its investments in a network of temperature-controlled pharma handling facilities at strategic airport locations around the world over the past two years means it has already earned preferred partner status with many of the world’s biggest transporters of pharmaceuticals and medical devices.
WFS currently operates 12 dedicated pharma facilities in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Brussels, Cape Town, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Johannesburg, London, Madrid, Miami, New York JFK, and its new €10 million state-of-the-art Pharma Centre at Paris CDG. These facilities are all either IATA CEIV or Good Distribution Practice (GDP) certified or compliant.
Duffy said: “Over half of global vaccine doses are expected to be transported by air cargo because of its speed and reliability, dictated by global demand and the absence of local production facilities in some countries. We are part of an industry-wide solution which is mapping where vaccines are being produced to ensure rapid global vaccine trade flows. We will use all the capabilities we have to deliver and support a consistent and reliable end-to-end handling solution.”
WFS said the transport of COVID vaccines is expected to commence by the end of 2020, reach its peak in the second half of 2021, and continue into 2022, noting that countries and trading blocs have already ordered over 5 billion doses. “Some 65,000 tonnes of vaccine are forecast to require air cargo transport, plus ancillary hardware and PPE which will be needed to administer it,” the group said.
Swissport demos vaccine handling
Fellow airport cargo handling multinational Swissport has also shared some of its plans for the global distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. Among these plans, Swissport has been putting its facilities and processes to the test, including a “dry-run” demonstration “under real-conditions” at its state-of-the-art Pharma Centre in Brussels of its ability to handle temperature-sensitive air cargo cooled to temperatures as low as -70°C.
In a showcase on 18 November, in collaboration with Brussels Airport, Air Cargo Belgium and Hazgo, Swissport demonstrated its ability to handle highly temperature-sensitive air cargo at its 3,620 sqm Pharma Centre in Brussels. Two separate shipments were delivered to the facility, one arriving in a container cooled to -70°C, and the other transported in a more conventional 2°-8°C temperature range.
Swissport said its infrastructure, combined with know how regarding dry-ice handling, helped achieve “seamless temperature-control throughout the entire airport handling process, from the acceptance at the cargo warehouse to the transport on the apron with special vehicles, and right into the aircraft”.
Swissport said its cargo teams around the world have been busy establishing operational readiness for the handling of highly temperature-sensitive vaccines, noting that while some types of Covid-19 vaccines might only call for temperatures around -20°C or in a range from 2°-8°C, others will likely require extremely low temperatures in the range of -70°C.
Koen Gouweloose, Head of Swissport Cargo Services Belgium, said the demonstration “shows that, thanks to the successful and long-standing collaboration with our airport partners, Swissport is ready to play its part”.
Of 115 cargo warehouses which Swissport runs around the globe, 72 are equipped with temperature-controlled facilities, with 13 certified under the IATA CEIV Pharma standard, the British MHRA, and other recognised organisations.
Etihad Cargo collaborating to deliver 18bn vaccine doses
Meanwhile in the UAE, Etihad Cargo is part of an ambitious consortium that plans to deliver more than 18 billion vaccine doses around the world by the end of 2021, with the help of key partners.
Comprising leading Abu Dhabi and global entities, the Hope Consortium represents a complete supply chain solution to address vaccine transport, demand planning, sourcing, training, and digital technology infrastructure, and facilitate vaccine availability across the world, the partners say.
Etihad Cargo has already transported 5 million vaccines in November on behalf of Abu Dhabi’s Department of Health – which is spearheading the consortium, which also includes Abu Dhabi Ports Company and Switzerland’s SkyCell, which develops temperature-controlled logistics containers for the pharmaceutical industry. Within the Hope Consortium, SkyCell will establish a regional service and manufacturing centre in Abu Dhabi.
The aim is to pool the consortium members’ collective expertise to create “a multi-faceted capability” to move and store as many as 6 billion doses – in cold and ultra-cold conditions in early 2021, rising to over 18 billion doses by the end of 2021.
Distribution of the vaccines, which will be stored in Abu Dhabi Ports Company facilities, will be carried out by Etihad Cargo, with the UAE national carrier leveraging its intercontinental network, fleet and charter flights to supply vaccines globally.
Tony Douglas, Group Chief Executive Officer of Etihad Aviation Group commented: “Etihad Cargo’s role in the consortium will leverage our pharmaceutical logistics expertise and specialised pharma and healthcare service, PharmaLife, the IATA CEIV Pharma-certified product capable of facilitating temperature-sensitive cargo between +25⁰C and -80⁰C.”
The Hope Consortium also highlighted significant progress that is being made on cold-chain vaccine packaging. It intends to transport the vaccines using newly created SkyCell’s hybrid containers, which it said ensure sensitive vaccines are protected even under extreme conditions. “With efficient insulation and cutting-edge cooling technology, the containers maintain steady temperatures for an average of 202 hours (8.4 days) and self-recharge automatically in a cooling chamber or reefer truck,” the partners said.
Richard Ettl, Chief Executive Officer of SkyCell, commented: “The Hope Consortium has the right partners, infrastructure and service ecosystem to ensure time- and temperature-sensitive transportation in a seamless cool chain operation.”
The consortium said it will also be looking to partner with other players and stakeholders to improve its offering.
Etihad Cargo’s new PharmaLife product
Although Etihad Cargo was one of the first carriers in the Middle East to gain IATA’s Centre of Excellence for Independent Validators (CEIV) certification for pharmaceutical logistics, the carrier only launched its PharmaLife specialised pharma and healthcare product in September.
Andre Blech, Head of Operations and Service Delivery at Etihad Cargo, explained: “The pandemic prompted a reassessment of our top-level services to ensure we can address the specific requirements for shipping high volumes of in-demand product in very short timescales. To avoid last-minute pressure once a vaccine is approved, we have established a dedicated COVID-19 vaccines workforce composed of a Steering Committee and a Working Group to manage all anticipated elements.”
Available at 54 stations, PharmaLife will focus on key gateways including Abu Dhabi, Barcelona, Chicago, Paris, Dubai, Frankfurt, Hyderabad, London, Milan, Melbourne, Mumbai, Shanghai, Singapore, and Sydney.
Other international airlines and airports have also outlined significant major initiatives to ramp up and their vaccine delivery capabilities and capacity, with some carriers – including Turkish Cargo and Air France KLM Cargo – revealing in November that they have already begun transporting Covid-19 vaccines.
UNICEF’s multilateral initiative
Meanwhile, in a promising sign of progress being made towards developing coordinated, multilateral initiatives, the world’s largest single vaccine buyer UNICEF has begun working with major global airlines and freight providers to step up efforts to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to over 92 countries around the world as soon as vaccines become available.
Together with IATA and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), UNICEF briefed major global airlines in mid-November on the expected capacity requirements and discussed ways to transport close to 2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021. This is in addition to the 1 billion syringes that need to be transported by sea freight.
That virtual meeting followed shortly after UNICEF’s first virtual logistics event to discuss the transport of COVID-19 vaccines, which it described as “a landmark discussion” that brought together more than 350 logistics partners, including air freight operators, shipping lines and global logistics associations.
Etleva Kadilli, Director of UNICEF’s Supply Division, commented: “This invaluable collaboration will go a long way to ensure that enough transport capacity is in place for this historic and mammoth operation.”
In the coming weeks, UNICEF is also assessing existing transport capacity to identify gaps and future requirements. It said the procurement, delivery and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is anticipated to be the largest and fastest such operation ever undertaken.
UNICEF is leading efforts to procure and deliver vaccines from manufacturers that have agreements with the COVAX Facility. In collaboration with PAHO, UNICEF will coordinate the purchase and delivery for 92 low- and lower middle-income economies “as quickly and securely as possible”.
Last month, UNICEF began a process to stockpile more than 1 billion syringes by 2021 to guarantee initial supply and pre-position in advance of COVID-19 vaccines.
UNICEF normally procures more than 2 billion doses of vaccines annually for routine immunization and outbreak response on behalf of nearly 100 countries, making it a leading global expert in supply chain management of temperature-controlled products.