The airline industry warns that distributing a Covid-19 vaccine will be the "mission of the century" for air freight.
New Zealand today announced it has signed an agreement to purchase 1.5 million Covid-19 vaccines – enough for 750,000 people.
But the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could also prove to be one of the most difficult of the experimental vaccines to distribute, should they prove effective. The vaccine must be kept at a temperature of -70 degrees Celsius.
Assuming clinical success, Pfizer and BioNTech are on track to seek regulatory review for as early as later this month and, if regulatory authorisation or approval is obtained, plan to supply up to 100 million doses around the world by the end of the year. There could be about 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021 from the vaccine makers which are among more than 40 vaccines in late stage trials.
The New Zealand Government says as part of the agreement, vaccine delivery to this country could be as early as the first quarter of next year
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has urged governments to begin careful planning with industry stakeholders to ensure full preparedness when vaccines for Covid-19 are approved and available for distribution.
It has also warned of potentially severe capacity constraints in transporting vaccines by air.
"Safely delivering Covid-19 vaccines will be the mission of the century for the global air cargo industry," said the association's director general and chief executive, Alexandre de Juniac
Last month he said it was time for governments to take the lead in facilitating cooperation across the logistics chain so the facilities, security arrangements and border processes were ready for the "mammoth and complex" task ahead.
He said on top of the transport preparations and coordination needed, governments must also consider the current diminished cargo capacity of the global air transport industry.
With the severe downturn in passenger traffic, airlines have scaled back networks and put many aircraft into remote long-term storage.
Air freight to and from New Zealand was mainly carried in the bellies of passenger aircraft, most of which are no longer flying here.
Globally, providing a single dose to 7.8 billion people would fill 8000 747 cargo aircraft.
"Land transport will help, especially in developed economies with local manufacturing capacity. But vaccines cannot be delivered globally without the significant use air cargo," de Juniac said.
Iata says the global route network has been reduced dramatically from the pre-Covid 24,000 city pairs.
Already, organisations such as the World Health Organisation and Unicef Gavi have reported severe difficulties in maintaining their planned vaccine programmes during the Covid-19 crisis due, in part, to limited air connectivity.
While there were still many unknowns (number of doses, temperature sensitivities, manufacturing locations, etc.), it was clear the scale of activity will be vast, that cold chain facilities will be required and that delivery to every corner of the world would be needed.
The entire supply chain would need to be enhanced for the temperature-sensitive vaccines.
He also warned of the need for extra security.
"Arrangements must be in place to keep ensure that shipments remain secure from tampering and theft. 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."