The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has urged governments to ensure they are fully prepared for when Covid-19 vaccines are approved and available for distribution, warning of “potentially severe capacity constraints in transporting vaccines by air”.

The association said that providing a single dose alone to the world’s 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 B747 aircraft, adding that “it is clear that the scale of activity will be vast, that cold chain facilities will be required and that delivery to every corner of the planet will be needed”.

IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac said that 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,” de Juniac warned. “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.”

IATA highlighted priorities for preparing facilities ahead of vaccine distribution, including the availability of temperature-controlled facilities and equipment, and staff trained to handle time- and temperature-sensitive vaccines.

The association also said that “robust monitoring capabilities” will be needed to ensure the integrity of the vaccines is maintained, and arrangements must be put in place to ensure “shipments remain secure from tampering and theft”.

IATA warned that border processes will also need to be put in place to ensure smooth distribution, including:

  • Introducing fast-track procedures for overflight and landing permits for operations carrying the COVID-19 vaccine
  • Exempting flight crew members from quarantine requirements to ensure cargo supply chains are maintained
  • Supporting temporary traffic rights for operations carrying the COVID-19 vaccines where restrictions may apply
  • Removing operating hour curfews for flights carrying the vaccine to facilitate the most flexible global network operations
  • Granting priority on arrival of those vital shipments to prevent possible temperature excursions due to delays
  • Considering tariff relief to facilitate the movement of the vaccine

“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,” said de Juniac.

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