The Covid-19 vaccine – Leaving, on a jet plane?

United Kingdom

The outbreak of Covid-19 worldwide has given rise to many legal and practical challenges worldwide. As the United Kingdom begins 2021 in another lockdown, a new challenge has presented itself to the transport and logistics sector – how to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine in a way which maintains the integrity and effectiveness of the vaccine.

UK Impact

There are currently 3 vaccines approved for use in the UK, and the UK government has set an ambitious target of vaccinating around 13 million people UK-wide by the middle of February 2021. It is expected that the UK will soon have 1000 vaccination sites operating – some in the previously opened ‘Nightingale hospitals’, others in newly constructed centres which have been constructed with the help of the British Armed forces.

Vaccination stocks will need to be transported to the various sites, with the means of transportation differing depending on the vaccine itself. While the vaccine developed jointly by the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca can be transported and held at a refrigerated temperature, and using existing vaccine infrastructure, the other vaccines approved for use in the UK require to be transported in a frozen, or in some instances a deep frozen, state and only kept at refrigerated temperatures for short periods of time.

During the initial vaccination period, where large numbers of the population were being vaccinated at a small number of central vaccination centres, these temperature controls and timescales for refrigeration were less likely to be problematic. However, the logistics of reaching the more remote areas of the UK, and ensuring that stocks of the vaccine are not wasted, will involve both logistical planning and an effective transport plan which covers bringing the vaccine into the UK in an efficient manner and circulating the vaccine across the UK using the roads and ferry routes. Progress has already been made:

  • in December 2020 it was reported that NHS Western Isles and NHS Highland – where there was a concern that the vaccines in deep frozen state could not be distributed due to the specific transport requirements – had received guidance that would allow arrangements to be in place for the receipt of those vaccines; and

  • changes such as the reduction of the pack size of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine has allowed for wider transportation across the UK.

Worldwide

While the UK is a front-runner in implementing a national vaccination programme, 2021 is likely to see a worldwide roll-out of a number of the available vaccines, which will lead to further logistical and transport challenges.

DHL and McKinsey released a report in September 2020 which estimated that 15,000 flights would be required in order to vaccinate the world against Covid-19. While cargo holds of commercial flights may provide a significant opportunity, the number of passenger planes has dramatically decreased over the last 12 months, and the global requirement for PPE has, so far, filled much of the available space. It is however likely that any vaccine would take priority over PPE, as PPE does not have an urgent life span and therefore could be transported by other means such as sea freight.

A number of agencies have begun to put in place procedures for the distribution of a successful vaccine by air freight. In particular, the focus has been on vaccines such as the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine and the Moderna vaccine, which need to be transported using dry ice - considered highly dangerous for air transport in large quantities.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has published guidance for the safe transport for vaccines required to be cooled by dry ice. The guidance sets out the conditions and precautions which airlines will require to take in order to transport large quantities of dry ice, whether in the cargo hold or in passenger cabins when no passengers are on board. Such precautions include route planning, use of CO2 detectors, and diversion scenarios to ensure for sufficient availability of oxygen on board. The Guidance also considers the additional procedures to be taken by ground handlers involved in handling cargo containing dry ice.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration created an FAA Covid-19 Vaccine Air Transport Team in October 2020, which was established to assist in the distribution of a Covid-19 vaccine. The Vaccine Team is intended to support the co-ordination across various bodies (including airlines, airport operations and Air Traffic Control) of the plans which are needed for vaccine distribution, particularly in cases where a vaccine requires to be transported at extreme temperatures with the use of dry ice.

The World Health Organisation and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, launched COVAX, the central mechanism for global Covid-19 vaccination. COVAX is intended to facilitate the worldwide roll-out of Covid-19 vaccines regardless of an individual country’s ability to pay for such vaccine. There are currently 190 participating countries within the scheme. COVAX have released a guidance note on the supply and logistics of Covid-19 vaccines, in order to assist countries in preparing their supply chains to be able to distribute the vaccines and related products once available. If a vaccine which can be stored at refrigerated temperatures is approved worldwide, this would allow low and middle income countries to use their existing vaccine logistic supply chains in disseminating the vaccine across those areas which are more remote, and where large deep freeze containers cannot be stored.

While the development of Covid-19 vaccines may not currently be in a position to allow for worldwide roll-out, the aviation industry should be using this time to plan for future roll outs as it is already clear that it’s involvement will be paramount to the success of any future distribution.

There is no doubt that the beginnings of a vaccine roll-out is great news. That said, the mass inoculation of the UK’s population with a vaccine which can be stored at normal refrigerated temperatures would of itself be a logistical challenge. Rolling out a vaccination programme on a worldwide scale, with some vaccines needing to be transported and stored in a deep freeze state, is likely to lead to significant challenges within the transport and logistics sphere in the months and years to come.