The transport and shipping of a vaccine for the COVID-19 pandemic will be the ‘largest transport challenge ever’, according to the airline industry.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has said that the cargo expected to be shipped, an estimated 7.8 billion vials, or one per person, would need the equivalent of 8,000 jumbo jets, reports Flight Global.

While there is currently not a vaccine for COVID-19 ready, the IATA has begun working with airlines, airports, global health bodies and pharmaceutical firms on developing a global airlift plan.

The current plan makes assumptions that only one dose per person would be needed, however, this could change significantly if a successful vaccine candidate requires two or more parts.

“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,” said IATA’s chief executive Alexandre de Juniac.

Airlines have been shifting their focus to cargo transportation during the severe downturn in passenger flights during the coronavirus, but the transport of vaccines is far more complex.

Vaccines require a typical temperature range of between 2 and 8ºC, and some vaccines may even require freezing temperatures, which means that not all aircraft would be suitable for transporting the urgently needed drugs. If temperature controls fail, it could mean the entire shipment of vaccines would likely be needed to be scrapped.

“We know the procedures well. What we need to do is scale them up to the magnitude that will be required,” added Glyn Hughes, the industry body’s head of cargo.

Flights to certain parts of the world, including some areas of South East Asia, will be critical as they lack vaccine-production capabilities, he added.

As well as the temperature safety aspect, there are concerns around physical security, which will need in-depth planning and training to mitigate unlawful interference with the critical supply chains.

Hughes added that in many parts of the world the needed shipping infrastructure is lacking, so a robust network of passenger services must be in place to provide the vaccine when it becomes available.

The IATA says that distribution of the vaccine across Africa would be ‘impossible’ right now, given the lack of cargo capacity, the size of the region, and the complexities of border crossings.

There will be ‘almost military precision’ needed for transportation, and a network of cool storage facilities for holding the vaccine.

Approximately 140 vaccine candidates are in early development, and nearly two dozen are currently being tested on people in clinical trials, including one being developed by Oxford University that is already in an advanced stage of testing.

IATA has urged governments to begin careful planning now to ensure they are fully prepared once vaccines are approved and available for distribution, and along with ensuring they are handled and transported at controlled temperatures, that there are security considerations.

“Vaccines will be highly valuable commodities. Arrangements must be in place to keep ensure that shipments remain secure from tampering and theft,” added IATA.

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