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Home >News >World >Covid-19 vaccines are coming, airlines are rushing to deliver them

The global aviation industry, laid low by the pandemic, is gearing up to play a critical role in delivering the billions of vaccine doses the world needs to fight Covid-19.

Airlines are using passenger jets for cargo-only flights and revamping handling procedures. Airports, meantime, are bolstering security at depots handling the shots and adding or expanding cold-storage facilities to keep doses at their required temperature.

Pfizer Inc. and Germany’s BioNTech SE—pharmaceutical partners that currently make the only approved vaccine in the West—used trucks to move early shipments from a factory in Belgium to the UK and from a Michigan plant to US health agencies and hospitals. But industry experts estimate that as more vaccines are approved and distribution kicks into full gear, about half of the doses being transported around the world will go by plane.

“In January it really starts," said Dorothea von Boxberg, chief executive of Deutsche Lufthansa AG’s cargo unit, which is bidding for contracts to fly vaccines globally. She said she expects the air shipments to peak in 2021’s second quarter.

But the vaccine won’t be much of a financial cushion for an industry that has been hit hard by the pandemic. Covid-19 vaccines are estimated to account for around 1% of total air cargo shipments industrywide in 2021.

“Will it save our results for next year? No, it won’t," Ms. Von Boxberg said. “It’s just such an important type of shipment."

In the US, where Pfizer won emergency authorization for its shot last week, executives have contracted directly with United Parcel Service Inc. and FedEx Corp. to ship its vaccines by air and truck. McKesson Corp., a big pharmaceuticals distributor, is also using FedEx and UPS to ship vaccines being developed by Moderna Inc. and other manufacturers.

Big air-cargo hubs such as Memphis and Chicago are used to handling millions of flu and measles vaccines each year, but smaller airports have stepped up efforts in preparation for the Covid-19 shots as well.

FedEx is trucking shipments from Pfizer’s Kalamazoo, Mich., plant to Gerald R. Ford International Airport in nearby Grand Rapids, and then flying them on to its Memphis and Indianapolis hubs, according to airport officials and flight records. UPS trucks shipments to Capital Region International Airport in Lansing, Mich., for flights to its Louisville hub, according to airport officials.

Grand Rapids airport officials say they expect regular Pfizer shipments in the coming months, and are in talks with four global airlines aside from FedEx about vaccine flights.

Meantime, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued airports new vaccine guidance, including about enhanced security and snow-removal protocols.

FedEx and UPS said vaccine shipments receive priority over other parcels as part of their next-day delivery guarantees. “It goes on the plane first, it comes off the plane first," Richard Smith, president of the Americas at FedEx Express, said at a congressional hearing last week.

United Airlines Holdings Inc. was one of the first in the world to carry the Pfizer vaccine outside of trials. Shipments began at the end of November, after United started cargo-only flights between Brussels and Chicago to bring in doses of the Pfizer vaccine made at its Belgium plant.

United has flown five charter jets carrying vaccines from Brussels to Chicago, each with capacity to hold over one million doses. The airline said it has also started carrying vaccines on passenger flights to disseminate doses across its network, though an airline spokeswoman declined to say how frequently it will carry vaccines and on which routes.

At United’s hub at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, the process from parking the plane to the trucks’ departure takes less than an hour—about half the typical time, said Chris Busch, United’s managing director of cargo for the Americas.

“Everything with the vaccine is speed, speed, speed," Mr. Busch said.

Delta Air Lines Inc. said it has identified its flights to and from India-—the world’s biggest exporter of pharmaceutical products by air—as one target market for shipping Covid-19 vaccines. The airline said it could set up charter flights on 48 hours notice.

Delta on Wednesday said it had carried vaccines from Detroit to Atlanta and San Francisco: It had the inoculations on their way within three hours of being engaged.

Lufthansa has applied for a series of contracts to fly vaccines from Brussels and from its hub at Frankfurt Airport along a series of routes to Asia and the North Atlantic. The German carrier has been operating test shipments in recent weeks and expects some tenders to be awarded in the coming days.

In Europe, Brussels Airport has become an early focus of the aviation industry’s role in ferrying vaccines—it is about a 30-minute drive from Pfizer’s Belgium factory. The airport said it has conducted seven flights carrying vaccines since late last month, including the United flights and flights by Deutsche Post AG’s cargo arm.

“Besides just the volume, for me, it’s really about the process control," referring to handling and moving the vaccines and keeping them at the right temperature, said Hendrik Leyssens, vice president of global cargo operations for Swissport International Ltd., which operates a cargo facility at the airport.

Emirates Airline says it is building the world’s largest dedicated air-cargo hub for Covid-19 vaccines in Dubai, promising over about 97,000 square feet of temperature-controlled and internationally certified storage and handling space dedicated to pharmaceuticals.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. spent the start of the pandemic using passenger planes to ferry hospital equipment and protective gear to London from China. The airline, which earlier this year sought and emerged from the equivalent of bankruptcy protection after passenger traffic dried up, is now pitching to transport vaccines.

Virgin developed a new pharmaceutical-tracking operation using staff based in the US and UK who can track shipments globally, with a surveillance team that maps the movement of each shipment and the temperature. The airline has also prepared security escorts where necessary.

“Right now we’re anticipating that it’s highly likely everywhere on our network will see pharmaceutical shipments," said Dominic Kennedy, managing director of Virgin’s cargo business.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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