Air cargo has been critical in the global fight against COVID-19, transporting vital equipment and medicines to those that have needed them most, writes Andrea Gruber.

If and when a coronavirus vaccine is developed—there are some 80 potential COVID-19 vaccine research programs underway around the world—efficient global delivery will be vital.

Air cargo already carries significant amounts of pharmaceutical and life science products. In fact, they make up 1.9% of air cargo volume and contribute 2.6% of total airline cargo revenues, equivalent to $2.5 billion. 

But they require stringent handling and transport condition lest the medicine loses its potency and becomes ineffective. And this is a real challenge given the current environment of limited air freight capacity and global connectivity resulting from the grounding of nearly two thirds of the passenger network.

Operational environment

The cancellation of 4.5 million passenger flights across all regions reduced international belly cargo capacity significantly. Over 100 carriers have performed cargo operations by transforming passenger aircraft into cargo-only operations to address shipper’s connectivity needs. This allowed millions of tons worth of face masks, respirators, ventilators and other PPE as well as medical equipment and much needed medicines to be shipped around the world.

But handling and transporting vaccines bring another dimension to the supply chain logistics. Such high-value and sensitive products not only require a temperature-controlled management environment but also must follow international regulatory requirements, such as those outlined by the EU Good Distribution Practices, US Federal Drug Administration, and standards for temperature-controlled sensitive products published in IATA’s Temperature Control Regulations (TCR).

The question is whether the temperature-controlled supply chain is capable of storing, handling and transporting the drastic increase in quantity that a COVID-19 vaccine would entail.  

Some carriers, ground handlers, forwarders and truckers may be unsure as to how to effectively handle temperature sensitive materials. Also, since it may not be suitable to transport temperature-controlled life science medical supplies in the passenger cabin, pharmaceutical manufacturers might be less inclined to have their valuable shipments transported in this manner.

Therefore, all supply chain partners must familiarize themselves with the overall requirements to safely process vaccine shipments before looking to accept or handle such consignments. There may be a need to allocate specific or additional resources within their networks and designate additional and/or technically compliant storage space for the vaccine. Industry training and compliance certifications may also need to be increased.

Mitigating risks

When transporting temperature sensitive pharmaceutical products, quality is key and cannot be jeopardized. Companies that have implemented quality-driven strategy programs, such as the IATA Center of Excellence for Independent Validators in Pharmaceutical Logistics (CEIV Pharma) program, are well placed to mitigate the impact of logistical constraints in their strategies, as they are already aware of:

  • the operational challenges
  • the standards and requirements to be followed
  • the necessity to have trained and knowledgeable staff
  • the requirement to have dedicated equipment as well as infrastructure
  • the importance of reviewing and if necessary, adjusting robust risk assessments.

Being part of such a program will be a significant advantage in building confidence and trust. On the contrary, non-standardized processes have a detrimental impact. This means that in the long term, a network of sustainable infrastructure, technology-driven initiatives, and people are needed. Global standards must be implemented, reviewed, and maintained through robust audit processes. If this is achieved properly, the results will be positive.

Business models

Air freight facilitates future access to global vaccination programs. But it will not be able to act alone. More than ever, the industry needs to invest in implementing an integrated multimodal transport solution as an enhanced business model to strengthen the network and the last mile delivery. Access to and from airports and the improvement of land-based infrastructure are just initial examples.

To respond to an increased worldwide demand, the distributed manufacturing approach may be privileged over the traditional manufacturing one. In other words, the decentralization of activities would lead to multiple manufacturing sites, closer to the end customers, reducing logistics and supply chain constraints. 

Because of the lockdowns resulting from the COVID-19 crisis worldwide, however, government authorities have enacted restrictive measures that impact trade movements.

IATA is lobbying regulators and working with national and international entities to reduce any negative impact. It is critical that countries continue to implement actions that prioritize the movements of vital life science supplies without disrupting the supply chain.

There are good initiatives. The European Commission has waived customs duties and VAT on the import of medical equipment from non-EU countries to combat the effects of COVID-19 and postponed by one year the date of application of the Medical Devices Regulation (MDR) that governs the production and distribution of medical devices in Europe. Expedited customs and other border procedures for vital shipments prevent possible temperature excursions due to delays.

Further considerations

Collaboration and communication are therefore key to ensuring the continued flow of life science supplies. Industry transformation can only be achieved through an integrated, efficient, and collaborative supply chain.

Following a continuous improvement approach will result in increased standardization and transparency across the supply chain. The air freight logistics supply chain is ambitious and must plan for resilient solutions.

The aviation and the pharmaceutical industries have been working together in collaboration for many years to strengthen the quality requirements with realistic capabilities. Our industry has been adaptive, agile, and responsive. Air cargo will continue its journey by playing a critical role in moving lifesaving supplies to fight the virus and reduce the negative human impact.

Picture Credit | iStock