Airforwarders Association: Who’s responsible for distributing the Covid-19 vaccine?

Brandon Fried, AfA

In the third article of a column series from the Airforwarders Association, executive director Brandon Fried questions who is responsible for the widespread distribution of the Covid-19 vaccine — and how the task can be carried out as efficiently and safely as possible. 

The SpaceX Crew-1 mission to the International Space Station is a perfect example of government and private industry collaboration to achieve a common goal. The launch marked a significant milestone in the space industry, establishing a precedent for private companies to provide transportation services in low earth orbit.  

We can expect to see a similar approach used for global distribution of an upcoming vaccine, as governments and commercial enterprises cooperate to achieve the most crucial mission in recent history. The freight transportation industry is ready to play its essential role, provided that governments set the stage for success.

As the time of writing this, two viable vaccine candidates are poised for the final stages of testing before the widespread injection is permitted.

Starting point

In the US, where doses could be available as soon as April, Pfizer plans to manufacture its vaccine locally for domestic recipients and in Europe for non-US recipients.

Moderna, another provider, is planning significant US output for global distribution. Regardless of where manufacturing occurs, widely distributing a long-awaited vaccine will take up valuable air cargo space, and the logistics industry needs to be ready.

The biggest challenge in managing this process is developing the necessary network with so many unknowns. For example, the required temperature of the vaccine is undetermined and varies widely between candidates. The exact locations of manufacturing and delivery methods also remain unknown, making establishing a logistical pattern incredibly challenging.

Successful distribution of billions of doses of a temperature-sensitive vaccine will depend on how well all the stakeholders — including pharmaceutical firms, packaging companies, and transportation providers — can coordinate. While temperature-controlled warehousing may be in various development stages, optimal packaging is also imperative so that the vaccine is delivered with minimum risk. Cooperation and active information sharing at each step in the supply chain is critical in assuring vaccine security.


Despite the urgency and complexity of the upcoming vaccine distribution, cargo security will also be an essential component for consideration. Governments can contribute to the effort by reducing the need for physical security inspection at the airport, and assuring as much screening as possible gets completed upstream in the supply chain.

The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has already made this possible in the US with the Certified Cargo Screening Program, but other countries without similar initiatives could look to government to provide or allow for advanced screening. Performing the screening function before airport arrival not only offers protection for workers, but also assures packaging integrity, thus increasing vaccine quality.

A Covid-19 vaccine will be a highly valuable commodity, so measures must be in place ahead of time to assure security from tampering and theft.

A more challenging threat will be protection from cyber-attacks because shipment information and data for temperature warehousing controls will be a lucrative target for malicious hackers.

Travel and speed

Countries around the world will also need to take steps to ensure that passenger airlines can begin flying again. The global route network has been reduced dramatically from the 24,000 city pairs before the pandemic started.

Governments must reestablish air connectivity to ensure adequate capacity is available for the distribution of a vaccine.

In the US, this may not be possible without a financial spending package from the new presidential administration and congress that helps airlines recover and get planes back in the air.

Once the massive distribution begins, shipments of essential vaccines cannot encounter time-robbing border delays in transit. Governments worldwide must take responsibility for timely regulatory approvals and customs clearance, as well as clearance from health agency authorities. These shipments will also require expedited permitting for overflights and landing to avoid further delays at the airport. We hope that lessons learned from expediting this vaccine distribution will become the standard, to facilitate regular trade activity after the pandemic subsides.

Vaccinating the world’s population against the coronavirus is a monumental undertaking that will only be successful through cooperation.

Making this happen will require a massive team with players at every level, including regional governments, militaries, air cargo freighter operators, express carriers, passenger airlines, cartage companies, warehouse providers, airports, and of course, the creative problem solvers of the freight forwarding community.

Each will have a significant role but must be willing to work effectively with other partners involved in the effort. When we work together as one, accomplishing the enormous mission of distributing billions of doses of the vaccine is as possible as sending a man to the moon.

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