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How Airlines Will Help Distribute Covid-19 Vaccines

It’s already being hailed by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) as the “mission of the century”, with airlines around the world gearing up to distribute lifesaving Covid-19 vaccines to every man, woman and child on the planet.

On Friday authorities confirmed that the first major shipment of Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine – which has an efficacy rate of 94% - arrived in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport via a United flight from Belgium.

If the vaccine is approved experts say the first injections in the United States could take place as early as December 21, with ground distribution organised at a state by state level. But before the vaccine can get into our arms it first has to get airborne, which, with storage temperatures as low as -94F, won’t be easy.

The FAA say they are working to ensure “around the clock air traffic services” to keep air cargo moving and are prioritising flights carrying vaccines and health care workers who are critical to the nation’s Covid response But with 2020 already being such a disastrous year for airlines, coping with this additional challenge will be a mammoth feat.

Gearing Up

To prepare for this enormous undertaking, several US airlines have already begun extensive consultations into the practicalities of vaccine distribution

In November, American Airlines launched covert trial flights from Miami to South America in order to train their crew in handling a potential Pfizer vaccine. AA CEO Doug Parker told ABC News that the airline recruited a team of specialists in temperature-critical shipments to advise on the operation and on LinkedIn he announced that handlers had “successfully moved” the thermal packaging in a dry run.

Other airlines are also gearing up for the flight with SouthWest issuing a statement saying they were “working with a number of our freight forwarding and courier customers that specialize in vaccine distribution to ensure we understand their needs and how we can play a role in moving the vaccine to locations throughout the United States”.

Chilling Out

The FAA meanwhile has been working on guidelines to help carriers in transporting the supercooled vaccines.

In order to keep the drugs at optimum temperature, doses have to be packaged in specialised boxes containing dry ice. As the ice sublimates during transit, it forms CO2 gas which can replace the oxygen in an enclosed space and lead to asphyxiation.

Normally the FAA only allows about 50% of hold space to be packaged with dry ice, meaning it has had to think up new measures to maximise storage while still keeping crew members safe during the journey.

This is to say nothing of the tight deadlines that need to be adhered to once the vaccine is out of the fridge. Once thawed, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine cannot be re-frozen and can only last 15 days in temporary storage before being injected. So airlines will need to keep to a strict schedule if we are to avoid wasting any of this precious cargo.

Tall Order

All in all, the race to distribute vaccines will likely be one of the largest undertakings in modern aviation. By the end of this year Pfizer plan to ship 1.3 billion doses of their vaccine, with Moderna adding another 500 million and Astro Zeneca a further 2 billion doses.

Even working at full capacity, the IATA reckon it will take a 110-ton capacity Boeing 747 freighter 8,000 trips to deliver the 14 billion doses needed for global immunization. And that’s provided planes are flying at all.

Since the onset of the pandemic, international flights have been decimated by low passenger numbers and government restrictions on air travel. With fewer flights comes less distribution capacity as airlines rely on passenger jets to transport a significant portion of their commercial cargo.

Some airlines, including United and American, have started running cargo-only flights to pick up the slack but this is nowhere near the capacity provided by a full passenger flight schedule.

It is for this reason that Gary Hughes, IATA’s head of cargo, has called on world governments to relax travel restrictions in order to facilitate a more efficient vaccine distribution system. This would not only speed up deployment but also take some of the financial strain off governments, allowing commercial flights to play a larger role in vaccine distribution rather than having to commission specialised cargo planes.

With rumours of further financial support for airlines flittering around Washington, it looks as if lawmakers might be waking up to the important role carriers have to play in seeing out this pandemic. But until then airlines can only cross their fingers and continue their preparations.

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