Air cargo vaccine supply chains yet to take off

By Damian Brett and Roger Hailey

Demand for air cargo services to carry Covid-19 vaccines has yet to reach the levels many expected.

Last year, the industry had been bracing itself for a surge in Covid-19 vaccine demand once inoculation programmes had been launched.

However, there has been a slow ramp up in demand so far, with road freight operations carrying the brunt of volumes as manufacturing sites satisfy local demand first.

Airfreight is now expected to come into its own as vaccination programmes are developed further away from where they are manufactured.

“The amount of vaccine that is actually being flown, relative to that is now being trucked is quite small,” said Dominic Kennedy, managing director of Virgin Atlantic Cargo.

“So for us we are gearing up for playing a part but anticipating that is really not going to happen until the middle part of 2021.”

He explained: “There is a huge amount of manufacturing capacity in the UK, Belgium, Germany and some other places in Europe and most of the output of those manufacturing sites is for local consumption, it’s not for international consumption.

“But we do see a significant lack of production capability in places in Africa, Pakistan, large swathes of Southeast Asia. Once that local consumption has been satisfied, then you trigger the international need.”

Dan Morgan-Evans, group cargo director at the UK-based global charter broker, said that vaccine demand may not be as high as many had expected.

Morgan-Evans said that the full picture of future airfreighted vaccine distribution is “a bit of an unknown” but he does not believe initial industry predictions that we will require 10,000 freighter flights to move vaccines worldwide because some vaccine production will be mostly at a domestic level, in the US for example.

This is now the consensus opinion expressed by a number of pharma logistics pundits in recent webinars.

“We are doing some vaccine charters now, sending vials to various places around Europe, but these are very small aircraft.

“You can get a lot of vials in an aircraft and I don’t know whether you will get to a stage similar to the PPE gold rush. I am not convinced of that.”

He offered a proviso: if the mutant variants of Covid-19 require current vaccines to be adjusted, then there may be a repeat surge.

“If the vaccine does play into the airfreight market, it will probably be the knock-on effect further down the line.

“Some non-vaccine products will not fly because of a lack of belly space, so that will affect the commercial market.”

Last year, Virgin Atlantic Cargo was one of many carriers to develop a new service to cater for the specialist requirements of transporting vaccines.

Pharma Secure includes a 24/7 support team, automatic live status updates, proactive service recovery and periodical integrity checks, temperature-controlled facilities and a dedicated booking team.

It also offers security escorts (on request), dedicated email for bookings, quotes and support, priority access to capacity and unloading at Heathrow, money back guarantee, GDP trained staff and access to temp-controlled facilities.

Kennedy pointed out the airline has WDA (GDP) accreditation in the UK, while partner airline Delta is CEIV certificated at JFK.

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