Project Sunrays – preparation for a COVID-19 vaccine by air


The world is currently racing to develop, trial and produce a COVID-19 vaccine as it seems society cannot return to ‘normal’ without one. Governments and pharmaceutical manufacturers are working fast to earn ‘the first to market’ title. Whilst this bubbles away, the logistics industry, specifically air freight, is facing uncertainty as the vaccine’s transportation needs are presently unknown and will likely to be complex.

At the start of September 2020, Project Sunrays was launched by Pharma.Aero and TIACA to collect insights, provide information and support the airfreight industry to get ready for this unprecedented challenge and collectively fight against the global pandemic. Its aim is to shine a light on and establish useful guidelines to ensure the proper and safe handling, storage, and transport of the expected high volume of COVID-19 vaccines.

On Wednesday (October 14) Pharma.Aero and TIACA collaborated to bring together a webinar in which they explained the members of the board discussed the Project’s recent survey, requirements from each stakeholder and potential challenges.

Between September 8-20, Project Sunrays conducted an airfreight readiness survey, completed by 181 airlines, freight forwarders, ground handlers, airport operators and solution providers. It found that only 28% of respondents were feeling prepared for the upcoming COVID-19 vaccines transportation whilst 19% did not feel prepared. Although this sounds quite unsettling it is unsurprising. With no approved vaccine and several parties developing them, there is no way of telling of their logistical needs until it is approved and understood. This links to a further question on stakeholder preparedness measured by a rating of 1-10 (1 being “very unprepared” and 10 being “feeling well prepared”). It showed the average score was 6.32 and that companies already engaging with vaccine manufacturers feel much more prepared for the coming challenge of COVID-19 vaccines logistics than companies with little to no contact. Furthermore, the survey found, predictably, companies involved in clinical trials logistics feel more prepared for the coming challenge of COVID-19 vaccines logistics than those that do not offer that service. 20% of the respondents are already involved in logistics of COVID-19 vaccines in clinical trials. Overall, the survey shows that there is a mix of feelings about the readiness level in the airfreight supply chain for COVID-19 vaccines edging toward the worrying side with nearly 1/5 of respondents unprepared. Again, this makes sense as the industry is in the dark about how the vaccine development is going to play out, what the requirements will be and where it will come from.

During the webinar, members of Project Sunrays stressed that collaboration between all stakeholders is the most imperative objective. Clear outlines and expectations need to be set as early as possible to ensure a smooth start to the launch. Collaboration and support between governments, NGOs and LSPs is essential in a successful distribution process. The Project suggested that all players such as forwarders, airlines, ground handlers, airports and solutions providers map their capabilities to provide the industry with a full understanding of capacity, facilities and shortfalls before the vaccines comes to market. This would ensure that each individual provider can deliver the services required for this momentous task. However, many including LSPs cannot start developing distribution plans until they have more of understanding of the vaccine, for example, product specification, size and packaging, volumes and geographic information. Visibility will also be vital so LSPs will need to ensure they have the technological resources. On a country level, whilst countries with good infrastructure, open governments and purchasing power will likely be first in line to receive the vaccine its vital that no one is left out. This operation needs to be global for it to succeed, medically and morally. This has put pressure on many stakeholders as they question whether to start investing in new infrastructure, technologies, facilities and cold stores, staff training or operations without knowing exactly what is required.

Amid the pandemic, the decline of passenger flights and the subsequent collapse bellyhold capacity has left the air freight industry in under-capacity. The development of a vaccine and the urgent nature in which it’s required will add stress to an industry already under unprecedented strain. IATA commented in early September that 8,000 Boeing 747 cargo aircraft would be required to deliver vaccines to nearly 8bn people worldwide, as estimate queried by the Project. In light of that announcement, concerns were raised over infrastructure, equipment and capacity at airports and beyond. A saving grace for the air freight industry is that it is likely the vaccine will be ready in batches and therefore distribution will be over the course of 2021 and into 2022, mitigating a ‘peak’.  

The Project now hopes with the survey results and monitoring the fast-paced nature of the vaccine development to continue its effort in providing information, guidance and education for the industry to be as best prepared as possible for the launch of the vaccine. It will maintain an open dialogue with industry players as well as the pharmaceutical manufacturers to enable collaboration and openness. The industry has encountered one of the hardest years to date and will go into 2021 facing unprecedented times. No one yet knows what the operation to distribute the vaccine will look like, it is a risky time for all involved in terms of investment, preparation and timing. Project Sunrays believes the air freight industry is up to the job and the Project will aid in mitigate difficulties and monitor the process to help deliver this hugely anticipated vaccine. 

Source: Transport Intelligence, October 15, 2020.

Author: Holly Stewart