- Even if a coronavirus vaccine is approved soon, it will likely be years until it can be distributed around the world, according to cargo airline and logistics executives.
- Challenging storage and shipping requirements, combined with reduced cargo availability and higher demand, are likely to delay distribution, according to a new Wall Street Journal report.
- Although cargo airlines are trying to prepare, a host of unknowns — including where the vaccine will be made, how many doses are needed, and how it will need to be stored — means there's only so much that can be organized in advance.
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Even if a COVID-19 vaccine can be developed, approved, and mass produced quickly, getting it to countries and communities around the world quickly enough to make a difference will present an unprecedented challenge for the global logistics industry.
The air-cargo industry is planning to ship up to 20 billion doses of a COVID-19 vaccination, according to a new report from Doug Cameron at the Wall Street Journal. But without knowing how many doses they'll actually need to ship, where they will be made, and how they will need to be stored during transit, there is only so much that carriers can figure out ahead of time.
Complicating matters is a reduction in cargo-hold freight capacity on passenger airliners, with many airlines cutting routes and frequencies during the pandemic; increased demand for shipping as people continue to work from home and avoid non-essential trips; and the coming peak shipping season that runs from fall until February.
According to the Journal, space on scheduled cargo flights is already filling up through February, with holiday shopping and consumer electronics leading the demand. Releases of an expected new iPhone and Sony's PlayStation 5 will only strain availability further.
Although airlines have said they will prioritize space for a vaccine — as they have for other medical supplies and PPE throughout the pandemic — challenging storage requirements for a vaccine would make freeing up last-minute space harder than it has been for other supplies.
Most of the vaccine candidates in development must be kept refrigerated or frozen — in some cases, at temperatures as low as -70 degrees Celsius. Cargo carriers are adding new infrastructure, such as "freezer farms" at airport hubs and temperature monitoring systems, but temperature control has always been a challenge when shipping vaccines.
The Journal reported that spoilage rates for other vaccines range from 5% to 20% due to refrigeration problems. The urgency, volume, and uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus vaccine are sure to compound those challenges.
"This is going to be one of the biggest challenges for the transportation industry," Michael Steen, the chief commercial officer at Atlas Air, one of the world's largest cargo airlines, told the Journal.
The upshot is that even when the vaccine is ready, it will likely take up to two years for it to reach the whole world's population, cargo executives told the Journal. Until that can happen, herd immunity will be difficult for many communities and countries to attain, meaning it will be a long time before life can go back to pre-pandemic normal.