Global Cold Chain Logistics Ramp Up Operations to Meet Distribution Challenges

Author: Roger Hailey, Freelance Journalist

Update : 19th March, 2021

Covid vaccine distribution at global scale is a matter of life and death, and the entire air cargo industry is now engaged in a race against the virus. Airfreight will play a major role in distributing vaccines worldwide, including the Asia Pacific regions, with cold chain stakeholders ramping up their operations to meet the challenge of distributing billions of vials.

While ‘traditional’ life science and pharmaceutical products already have established supply chains with regulatory standards and industry-led processes, vaccine distribution has added lower temperature ranges of around -70°C for some products and a massive increase in volumes.

A webinar hosted earlier this month by and The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA) provided an update on their joint Project Sunrays for airfreight to deliver vaccines worldwide. is a cross-industry collaboration for pharma shippers, IATA’s CEIV Pharma certified cargo communities, airport operators and other air cargo industry stakeholders. TIACA represents all parts of the air cargo industry, including shippers, freight forwarders, ground handlers, airports, airlines, manufacturers, and solution providers. secretary general Frank van Gelder told the webinar that there will be a “significant ramp up” in the vaccine schedule over the next six months, using World Health Organization (WHO) and Eurostat data to show the current status for already approved vaccines and the future pipeline. WHO data shows the scale of the challenge. Currently, three vaccines, those from AstraZeneca, Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna, have been accepted and approved by most countries worldwide.

These three vaccines are produced in 12 manufacturing sites over the world, but with a high concentration in both Europe and the United States and together will supply nearly six billion vaccine doses over the next six to eight months, each one requiring two therapeutic doses to achieve patient immunisation.

Beyond this trio, there is a significant pipeline of around 3.4bn Covid vaccine doses from a group of manufacturers: Sinovac, Gamalya National Centre, CanSinoBIO, Bharat Biotech, Serum Institute of India and Sinopharma whose vaccines will be available soon, plus another tranche of up to 3.5bn doses – including those from Johnson&Johnson and Novavax at the research stage but close to approval.

Van Gelder added that around 8.9bn vaccine doses will be available this year. Just how many of those vaccines will use airfreight is subject to debate and some very large numbers of freighter aircraft flights were put forward by various sources at the beginning of the vaccine airlift. It was estimated by IATA that to provide a single dose to 7.8bn people would fill 8,000 747 cargo aircraft.

That large estimate takes into account the sharp reduction in long haul passenger aircraft flights where up to 50% of total air cargo tonnages resides in the bellyholds under the main cabin, nestling alongside passenger baggage and often earning the revenue contribution to make some routes profitable.

We have also seen the emergence of ‘preighters’, i.e., widebody passenger aircraft chartered for cargo-only flights with bellyhold freight only, no passengers, or even passenger aircraft stripped of economy seats to carry lightweight parcels in the main deck, a practice which started with the Protective Personal Equipment (PPE) in the first quarter of 2020. Temperature-sensitive pharma, such as vaccines, will not be carried on the main deck of passenger aircraft.

Land transport will help, especially in developed economies with local manufacturing capacity. In the US, the enterprising ‘Operation Warp Speed’ has seen parcel delivery giants Federal Express and United Parcel Service (UPS) use a mix of their overnight domestic freighter aircraft networks and substantial ground delivery systems to ship 10m doses and soon to be 14m doses a week of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

This military style operation, which also includes ‘freezer farms’ temperature-controlled storage, sees next day delivery select destinations, including hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities, to inoculate healthcare workers.

But vaccines cannot be delivered globally without the significant use of air cargo.

That is why Project Sunrays has focused heavily on air cargo stakeholder collaboration to provide “solid solutions” for vaccine logistics when global air cargo capacity is under pressure. Van Gelder said that an emphasis on timely and accurate bookings, good planning and short transit time will mean no delays and secure both the condition and shipment safety of the vaccines.

He added: “We need transparency along the entire chain, real-time temperature and geo-monitoring as well as real-time communication and digitalisation of the supply chain.” In Asia, this collaboration has seen key cargo airport hubs such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Narita and Shanghai handle increasing numbers of vaccine shipments from airlines.

Longer term, it is likely that the pandemic will cause a strategic shift in traditional pharma and vaccine production. Developed countries will probably want to see future vaccine production centres located domestically or with a less stretched logistics supply chain.

A large number of older and less fuel efficient passenger aircraft will have to be culled as passenger demand falls. This will produce a ‘feedstock’ of cheaper aircraft undergoing a conversion into freighter aircraft, in turn boosting future specialist air cargo capacity.

Air cargo stakeholders will also need to adjust. Global freight forwarding giant Kuehne+Nagel (K+N) recently announced a strategic partnership with Jointown, China’s largest non-state-owned pharmaceutical distribution company, to accelerate K+N’s footprint in pharma and healthcare logistics in China.

Others will certainly follow, either through direct a straight takeover or via long term partnerships to secure pharma pipelines.

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About Roger Hailey

Roger Hailey stepped down as editor of Air Cargo News in May 2019 to become a freelance journalist. He is now associate editor at Air Cargo News, writing features and interviews. An award-winning trade journalist, Roger has been writing about freight and logistics for more than 30 years at publications such as Lloyd’s List, Containerisation International and International Freighting Weekly. Roger has experience of moderating panel sessions at industry conferences and award ceremonies. He is available to write bespoke analysis for in-house publications or blogs.