Distributing the COVID-19 vaccine will be “largest and most complex logistical exercise” ever to have taken place.

Cargo operations are set to begin in days following the announcement that the UK has become the first western country to approve a vaccination against COVID-19. The UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) was given the power to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine under emergency regulations before January 1. The approval makes the UK the first western country to license a vaccine against COVID-19 and paves the way for mass immunisation for those most at risk to begin next week.

Logistics and transport will be the next challenge for getting the vaccine to healthcare providers. The UK has bought 40m doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which demonstrated 95 per cent efficacy against the virus in its final trials with the first doses of the vaccine set to arrive in the coming days.

“The largest and most complex logistical exercise ever”

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) issued Guidance for Vaccine and Pharmaceutical Logistics and Distribution earlier in November providing recommendations for governments and the logistics supply chain in preparation for vaccine distribution. IATA chief Alexandre de Juniac described the operation as “the largest and most complex logistical exercise ever. The world is counting on us.”

The Guidance, which includes a repository of international standards related to the transport of vaccines, was produced with the support of a broad range of partners, which reflects the complexity of the challenge, including the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations (FIATA), International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA), Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) , UK Civil Aviation Authority, World Bank, World Customs Organization (WCO) and World Trade Organization (WTO).

de Juniac added: “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.”

Key challenges addressed within the guidance include:

  • the availability of temperature-controlled storage facilities and contingencies when such facilities are not available
    defining roles and responsibilities of parties involved in the distribution of vaccines to assist safe, fast and equitable distribution as broadly as possible
  • Industry preparedness for vaccine distribution which includes:
    Capacity and Connectivity: The global route network has been reduced dramatically from the pre-COVID 22,000 city pairs. IATA is calling on governments need to re-establish air connectivity to ensure adequate capacity is available for vaccine distribution.
  • Facilities and infrastructure: The first vaccine manufacturer to apply for regulatory approval requires the vaccine to be shipped and stored in a deep-frozen state, making ultra-cold chain facilities across the supply chain essential. Some types of refrigerants are classified as a dangerous goods and volumes are regulated. Considerations include availability of temperature-controlled facilities and equipment and staff trained to handle time- and temperature-sensitive vaccines.
  • Border management: Timely regulatory approvals and storage and clearance by customs and health authorities will be essential. Priorities for border processes include introducing fast-track procedures for overflight and landing permits for operations carrying the COVID-19 vaccine and potential tariff relief to facilitate the movement of the vaccine.
  • Security: Vaccines are highly valuable commodities. Arrangements must be in place to ensure that shipments remain secure from tampering and theft.

The Guidance includes a repository of international standards related to the transport of vaccines and will be updated regularly as information is made available to the industry. Accompanying the guidance, IATA established a joint information-sharing forum for stakeholders.

United Airlines already helping vaccine distribution effort

COVID vaccines have yet to gain approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, but supplies are allowed to be stockpiled ahead of it gaining the green light from regulators. The Wall Street Journal has reported that United Airlines had commenced flights from a vaccine production facility in Belgium to the US last Friday. Although United Airlines did not confirm the flights, both the airline and FAA confirmed they were supporting the vaccine distribution effort.

The FAA has now permitted United to carry 15,000 pounds of dry ice per flight, five times the amount which is usually allowed. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has to be kept at -70C although the companies have added it can be stored for up to five days in a fridge, at 2-8°C.


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