Global airlines prepare for “mission of the century” to ship COVID-19 vaccines

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Germany’s Lufthansa Airlines is preparing its shrinking fleet in cooled warehouses on the fringes of Frankfurt Airport for the massive task of airlifting millions of doses of vaccines expected to end the global pandemic.

In anticipation of the shots that Pfizer to Moderna and AstraZeneca are making in record time, Lufthansa, one of the world’s largest cargo carriers, started preparing in April. A 20-member task force is at work designing how to fit more of the vital payload on the 15 Boeing Co. 777 and MD-11 freighters of the airline, along with hold space in a vast passenger fleet now flying at just 25 percent of capacity.

“The question is how we scale it up,” said Thorsten Braun, who leads Lufthansa’s part in the global effort.

Lowered by a decimated passenger demand due to the pandemic of COVID-19, airlines would be the workhorses of the effort to eliminate it, delivering billions of vials to every corner of the globe. It is an immense challenge, made more difficult by the weakened condition of the airlines after cutting jobs, routes and aircraft to survive a crisis that this year has decreased air traffic worldwide by an estimated 61 percent.

“This will be the largest and most complex logistical exercise ever. The world is counting on us,” said Alexandre de Juniac, chief executive officer of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the industry’s chief lobby.

IATA reports that the equivalent of 8,000 loads will be required for the 110-ton Boeing 747 airlift, which will take two years to deliver some 14 billion doses, or nearly two for every man, woman and child on Earth.

Cargo capacity

Around 2,000 dedicated freighters are in service globally, carrying nearly half of all goods transported by air. Usually, the remainder goes into the bellies of the world’s 22,000 daily jetliners.

While the freighters are full, air-cargo volume has tumbled this year because so much belly capacity is sitting idle. Airlines have drafted about 2,500 passenger planes into cargo-only roles, but the job of distributing the vaccine would be easier if fleets were flying with usual frequencies to their usual destinations.

Space will be limited at the very beginning at least. For cargo carriers, the huge undertaking is expected to begin at a peak time, just as the online Christmas shopping frenzy, fueled by COVID-19 this year, hits its apex.

By the end of next year, Pfizer plans to ship 1.3 billion doses of its vaccine, with Moderna producing around 500 million. AstraZeneca is capable of delivering 2 billion doses, half of which are aimed at low- and middle-income nations.

“What we have to do is very quickly help the world get up on its feet,” said Dennis Lister, vice president for cargo at Emirates, the world’s largest long-distance airline. “Part of that is making sure we get vaccines on planes to people that need it, so we get people flying again.”

Low temperature requirements

An additional layer of complexity is created by the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. It must be transported at minus 70 degrees Celsius, colder than winter in Antarctica, and the companies plan to use GPS-enabled thermal sensors to track the location and temperature of each vaccine shipment.

Upon arrival, the vaccine can be placed in ultra-low-temperature freezers (which are commercially available and may prolong the shelf life of the vaccine for up to six months), or in a refrigerator at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius for five days in a hospital, or in a special Pfizer thermal shipper in which the doses will arrive. It can be used as a temporary storage unit for up to 15 days by refilling it with dry ice.

The plan, with controls in place from factory to clinic and all points between, will be delicate. There is practically no aircraft that can keep items so cold. Instead, airlines will rely on specialized containers from Pfizer to keep the vaccine cool.

“While distribution needs continue to evolve, a team approach will ensure that there will be enough air cargo capacity to handle demand,” Vittal Shetty, director of innovation and delivery-airport excellence and cargo for US carrier Delta Airlines.


Despite the challenges, the flow of doses should be boosted by a well-established global pharmaceutical distribution network. There are well known deep-freeze capabilities in cities ranging from Miami, Dallas and London, to Liege in Belgium, Dubai, Mumbai, Singapore and Incheon in Seoul.

US-based delivery services company FedEx has added freezers and refrigerated trucks to its already extensive cold-chain network, and Richard Smith, who’s heading up the delivery firm’s vaccine effort, has pledged to free as much air and ground capacity as needed.

UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), a United Nations (UN) humanitarian relief organization, has been hiring airlines to deliver the vaccine to more than 170 countries through its massive initiative.

While transporting vials from their point of manufacture to a major hospital or clinic in a big, developed city is one thing, the challenge gets steep in emerging nations, where infrastructure to remote villages and towns may be rickety and unreliable, or even non-existent.

In November, UNICEF called on about 40 airlines to make preparations for a global airlift to 92 of the poorest countries in the world, leading efforts to buy and distribute COVID-19 vaccines. The agency’s initiative would protect 70 percent of the world’s population as another 80 higher-income countries have selected it to procure vaccines.

Reaching every single individual

Vaccine delivery isn’t just about airlines. In order to get the vaccine to rural areas, cars, buses, trucks, even motorcycles, bicycles and donkeys may be needed. It may need to be carried in by foot in some areas.

“You just don’t have deep-freezers everywhere,” said Adar Poonawalla, chief executive officer of Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine maker. It’s tied up with five developers, making 40 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine so far. The company aims to start manufacturing Novavax’s contender soon.

“These frozen vaccines, which are highly unstable, the developers need to work on stabilizing,” Mr. Poonawalla said.

According to IATA, the risk of tampering, the production of counterfeit shots and even attempts to impede delivery are also a concern. Drug companies have responded by requesting end-to-end security escorts, according to Dominic Kennedy, managing director for cargo at Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd.

The IATA chief, De Juniac, insists that the industry is ready. “We will not disappoint,” he assured.