How COVID-19 vaccines will be delivered to Australia

The transport industry has begun preparing for what’s been dubbed the “mission of the century” to deliver millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines with armed security, exclusive sky corridors and removal of airport curfews part of the plan.

But there are logistic nightmare warnings about how the current limited air industry including stood down staff and mothballed aircraft could cope and under what time frames given the unknown surrounding coronavirus vaccine development.

The International Air Transport Association has urged Pacific governments to engage with the industry now about the future COVID-19 vaccines as the world was entrenched in a “severe capacity constraints” in air transport.

Qatar airlines started airfreight service to and from Melbourne in April in a Boeing 777 Freighter. Picture: Melbourne Airport
Qatar airlines started airfreight service to and from Melbourne in April in a Boeing 777 Freighter. Picture: Melbourne Airport

Countries like Australia faces even more critical planning given the air distance logistics required to deliver initial doses of vaccines, if they cannot be manufactured here, temperature-controlled facilities required and equipment that in many instances will require re-purposing infrastructure or temporary construction builds.

It is understood preliminary discussions are underway but there remains numerous unknowns including when and where Australia’s vaccine will be developed and how road and airfreight will work together to ensure they are distributed quickly.

“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 and the time for that is now,” said IATA’s Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac who represents 290 airlines including Qantas and Virgin.

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Gavi, the international organisation created 20 years ago to improve access to vaccines mostly for the poorest countries, said the rollout would be complex.

“We look forward to working together with government, vaccine manufacturers and logistic partners to ensure an efficient global rollout of a safe and affordable COVID-19 vaccine,” CEO Dr Seth Berkley said.

Vaccines will be one of the world’s most valuable commodities and IATA has warned security will have to be extremely tight to ensure there is no tampering or theft while governments also needed to consider fast-track procedures for overflights and landing permits, exempting crews from quarantine requirements, removing curfew operating hours and flight arrival and departure priorities. Where aircraft and stood down crews are and how quickly they can be stood-up was also critical for some nations.

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“If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver lifesaving vaccines will be very much compromised,” said de Juniac.

According to IBISWorld, leading data research and analytics body which has produced a detailed report on the air industry during COVID-19 and for the next five years, domestic industry recovery will only occur after COVID-19 is “contained” however international industry will be “limited for a protracted period” with pre-outbreak levels of air movements unlikely unless the virus was “almost totally contained globally”.

DHL Global Forwarding Australia Air freight network. Picture: Supplied
DHL Global Forwarding Australia Air freight network. Picture: Supplied

IBISWorld senior industry analyst James Caldwell said airfreight will not be an issue for Australia if vaccines are manufactured here and the burden would then land on road transport.

“The IATA report shows this is a massive problem for the developing countries but advanced economies like Australia are not going to be seeing the same level of difficulties,” he said.

But if in the initial stages they are produced overseas, then having appropriate staff to handle the precious cargo would be an issue, with unknowns remaining now about how the bulk vaccines would be carried and at what temperature.

“The problem we have got there would be a lack of staff, especially people with Qantas being laid off right now so that would have to get ramped back up but there would also have to be significant training for how to deal with things like medicinal material they would not ordinarily be dealing with.”

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