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Vaccine distribution: association flags potential plane shortage

An association has warned of the ‘mammoth’ logistical task of shipping a coronavirus vaccine around the world – describing it as the ‘mission of the century’.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said getting a single dose to 7.8 billion people would require the equivalent of 8,000 jumbo jet planes.

The Montreal, Canada-based organisation warned of severe capacity constraints that could hamper efforts to get a vaccine out quickly around the world.

The aviation group has started working with airlines, airports, health bodies and pharmaceutical firms to draft an airlift plan, even though a vaccine has not been produced yet.

IATA’s director general, Alexandre de Juniac, said: “Safely delivering Covid-19 vaccines will be the mission of the century for the global air cargo industry. But it won’t happen without careful advance planning. And the time for that is now. We urge governments to take the lead in facilitating cooperation across the logistics chain so that the facilities, security arrangements and border processes are ready for the mammoth and complex task ahead.”

Although just providing a single dose to 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 Boeing 747 cargo aircraft, IATA said, any vaccine may require several doses. Not all planes are suitable for delivering vaccines as they need a typical temperature range of between 2 and 8C for transporting drugs.

Vaccines can be shipped by land in developed economies with local manufacturing capacity but the IATA warned that distributing a vaccine across Africa right now would be ‘impossible’.

The association, which represents 290 airlines in 120 countries, warned that, with the severe downturn in passenger traffic, airlines have scaled back their fleets and put many aircraft into long-term storage.

“Even if we assume that half the needed vaccines can be transported by land, the air cargo industry will still face its largest single transport challenge ever. In planning their vaccine programmes, particularly in the developing world, governments must take very careful consideration of the limited air cargo capacity that is available at the moment,” said De Juniac.

“If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised.”