Air cargo operators may struggle to distribute new COVID-19 vaccines effectively unless pandemic travel restrictions are eased, global airlines cautioned on Monday.
The warning came in vaccine transport guidelines issued by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which is pushing governments to replace travel curbs and quarantines with testing.
“If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised,” the IATA document said.
Moderna Inc MRNA.O said on Monday its experimental COVID-19 vaccine had proved 94.5% effective in a clinical trial, a week after rival drugmaker Pfizer PFE.N reported 90% efficacy findings for its vaccine. Once approved, both vaccines are likely to require transport and storage well below freezing, posing logistical hurdles.
Widespread grounding of passenger flights that normally carry 45% of global cargo in their holds has taken out capacity, thinning the air freight network and driving up prices.
Existing immunisation campaigns have struggled with the partial shutdown. The World Health Organisation and UNICEF “have already reported severe difficulties in maintaining their planned vaccine programmes during the COVID-19 crisis due, in part, to limited air connectivity,” IATA said.
Vaccines will need to be shipped to developing countries reliant on passenger services for cargo, IATA’s head of cargo Glyn Hughes said. Even in industrialised states, vaccine dispersal may be a tighter bottleneck than production, requiring shipments to secondary airports on passenger jets.
In preparation for the challenge of mass vaccine distribution, governments should move to reopen key passenger routes backed by robust testing, the airline body argues.
“There are several more months for governments to go through the planning cycle,” Hughes said, leaving enough time to “get passenger networks safely resumed, looking at safe travel corridors (and) mutual acceptance of testing procedures.”