Work on finding a viable COVID-19 vaccine continues around the world but another pressing issue is already starting to come to the forefront of the virus fight: how to transport billions of doses from factories to hospitals and clinics when the jab is ready.
Researchers are making progress in developing a coronavirus treatment and although one trial this week paused human testing, drugmakers are still bullish about the prospect of a working vaccine by early next year.
The European Union, as well as the United States, United Kingdom, China and more, have already entered into pre-agreements with the globe’s big pharmaceutical players in order to secure enough vaccine capacity for once it becomes available.
On Wednesday (9 September), the European Commission concluded talks with BioNTech-Pfizer on a deal that includes up to 300 million doses, making it the sixth major vaccine producer that the EU now has on its books.
“Our chances to develop and deploy a safe and effective vaccine have never been higher, both for Europeans here at home, or for the rest of the world. To defeat coronavirus anywhere, we need to defeat it everywhere,” said Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Although Europe boasts significant vaccine producing capacity and the bloc’s new Vaccine Strategy aims to oblige companies to produce treatments in the EU, a logistical nightmare is looming if policy-makers do not prepare properly.
Vaccines need to be transported in line with strict rules, in temperature-controlled conditions, in order to guarantee their quality and must arrive at their destinations within a certain window to be effective.
The scale of the task ahead is clear to the head of the aviation’s main trade group, the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
“Safely delivering COVID-19 vaccines will be the mission of the century for the global air cargo industry. But it won’t happen without careful advance planning. And the time for that is now,” said the group’s CEO, Alexandre de Juniac.
Due to the pandemic’s cooling effect on air travel demand, all airlines are currently operating far below capacity. That has had a knock-on effect on air cargo capacity, a lot of which is transported in the bellies of passenger planes.
According to IATA, providing just a single vaccine dose to the planet’s estimated 7.8 billion people would fill the holds of 8,000 jumbo jet 747 freighters. There are just over 400 747’s in service and that number is slowly falling due to aircraft retirements.
“Delivering billions of doses of vaccine to the entire world efficiently will involve hugely complex logistical and programmatic obstacles all the way along the supply chain,” said Dr Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.
The sector proved crucial in eventually securing enough personal protection equipment during the early months of the pandemic, although deliveries – and the diplomatic agenda underpinning them – were blighted by dud masks and faulty COVID tests.
In addition to the handling and capacity challenges, there is also the issue of security. The vaccine – which will be a highly valuable commodity – will have to be delivered to every corner of the planet and IATA warns that tampering and theft are legitimate concerns.
“Processes are in place to keep cargo shipments secure, but the potential volume of vaccine shipments will need early planning to ensure that they are scalable,” the group warned in a statement.
Road transport will be a crucial cog in the distribution plan, too, but the International Road Transport Union and European Transport Workers’ Federation continue to warn that Europe suffers from a lack of safe and secure truck parking areas, which could jeopardise deliveries.
IATA acknowledges that air cargo will only be part of the supply chain and that other transport types will play a role in getting the vaccine from door to door, particularly in the developing world.
But current government policies would limit the distribution effort if still in place when the time comes, particularly when it comes to border checks and quarantine measures for key workers like ground crew, truck drivers and sailors.
The European Commission has urged the EU member countries to sign up to a common playbook on border measures, in order to harmonise the bloc’s approach to quarantine and travel criteria.
Extra border checks and even closures have cropped up in recent weeks in the EU and beyond Europe’s shores the situation is even more disjointed.
At the beginning of the outbreak in Europe, traffic jams stretched for kilometres at previously open frontier crossings, as freight struggled to get through and deliveries were significantly delayed.
“If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised,” concluded Alexandre de Juniac.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]