The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the greatest challenges faced by humanity. According to the New York Times vaccine tracker, researchers are testing 40 vaccines in clinical trials on humans, and at least 92 preclinical vaccines are under active investigation in animals.
Meanwhile, the first emergency use authorizations for COVID-19 vaccines are already happening. In the UAE, two Phase 3 vaccines have been given emergency approval and senior health officials, including the UAE Health Minister, have taken the first dose of the vaccine.
While a successful vaccine represents a huge step forward for humanity in fighting the pandemic, the bigger challenge is ensuring a viable medical supply chain and access to the vaccine for everyone who needs it.
The COVID-19 vaccines would need stringent temperature requirements (some vaccines need temperatures as low as -80°C) to maintain their integrity and efficacy during transportation and warehousing. IATA, which represents 290 airlines, has already warned governments of severe capacity constraints in transporting vaccines by air. An estimated 8,000 cargo aircraft would be needed to ship enough vials for a single dose per person.
However, if there is one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, it is that we are capable of incredible feats when people decide to work together for a common cause. From the sequencing of the virus and the race to find a vaccine, to shipping relief materials around the world and flying medical teams to where they are needed, people have been rising above narrow political and regional considerations to come together as one.
Delivering COVID-19 vaccines safely is what IATA's Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac has rightly called "the mission of the century” for the global air cargo industry. This is the time for public health officials, logistics and air cargo operators to start advance planning for this mission. A mammoth public and private sector partnership is now required to ensure that the vaccine is made available to 200 countries around the world.
Without government support, the sub-zero temperature supply chains required for vaccine transport would slow down. Vaccine transport procedures and regulatory hurdles need to be streamlined so the estimated 10 billion doses of vaccines can be delivered safely, swiftly and in a stable condition. This is literally a matter of life and death.
The good news is that every link in this critical supply chain is stepping up to the plate. Logistics and pharma companies are already building ‘freezer farms’ – warehouses capable of supercooling millions of vials of the COVID-19 vaccines. Vial manufacturers are innovating on materials to ensure optimum packaging for the precious vaccine.
The aviation sector would have to display similar levels of ingenuity and creativity and devise new ways to augment the anticipated capacity crunch. With commercial aviation still to reach pre-pandemic levels, we anticipate passenger planes being redeployed and suitably converted to fly on these cargo missions. Fighting against a deadly enemy, the aviation and logistics sectors have ensured that the poorest and most vulnerable communities have access to safe, effective, and affordable medical supplies.
The task ahead is complex and herculean, but one that can be definitely executed with careful planning and preparation.
With a cure now in sight, this is the time for global businesses and nations to act together and alleviate suffering. In the fight against COVID-19, our mission must be to ensure no one is left behind. With collaboration, ingenuity and resilience humanity will eventually win this battle too.