COVID-19 vaccine: How airlines are transporting it around the world

Passengers who boarded Singapore Airlines flight SQ231 at Gate A11 in Changi just before midnight on Sunday had no idea of the precious cargo being carried below them in the belly of their Airbus A350 aircraft en route to Sydney.

Because of the highly-classified nature of the shipment, it was loaded in secrecy with essential crew only being briefed on a need-to-know basis – and very few people needed to know.

Everyone else had no idea that their flight was possibly one of the most carefully tracked in history, with its confidential consignment of 140,000 doses of the precious Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine being followed throughout the journey with a range of active tracking devices that also constantly monitored the vaccines' temperatures.

And even when the plane landed in Sydney seven minutes early at 12.13pm on Monday, and the cargo was unloaded first under cover of thermal blankets, no one was any the wiser that they'd taken part in potentially one of the biggest lifesaving airlift missions in peacetime Australia.

"Along with meeting the challenges of transporting vaccines that are highly time and temperature-sensitive, it is imperative that the details of each shipment are kept highly confidential to ensure their safe delivery," said Singapore Airlines spokesperson Karl Schubert.

The operation was the culmination of a nine-month COVID-19 preparation period from the airline, building on the time-sensitive and temperature-controlled cold chain system they'd put in place for pharmaceuticals back in 2018.

It entailed agreements with several suppliers of temperature-controlled containers, designed so they can be digitally tracked and tweaked at all times.

While other COVID-19 cargoes – like one delivery of 140,000 masks – have been carried in the main passenger part of the aircraft strapped to plastic-covered seats, the vaccines only travel in the hold of passenger planes or in freight planes.

The delivery of the predicted billions of doses of vaccines to the world has been a complex strategy carefully drawn up in collaboration with governments, to ensure the vaccines are given priority when crossing borders, said the International Air Transport Association (IATA), representing 290 airlines.

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"Safely delivering COVID-19 vaccines will be the mission of the century for the global air cargo industry," said IATA director general and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac.

He has recommended supporting temporary traffic rights for operations carrying the vaccines, removing curfews for flights, exempting flight crew members from quarantine arrangements and introducing fast-track procedures for over-flight and landing permits.

But even though transporting so many doses of the vaccine by air around the world is an exceedingly delicate task, perhaps the biggest challenge will come later, says leading Australian virologist Dr Kirsty Short, from the University of Queensland.

"The hardest thing is the next stage, when you're distributing the vaccine to regional centres which becomes even more problematic," she said.

"The transport boxes the Pfizer vaccine comes in are very useful but once you open the vaccine vial, it needs to be used within six hours because it contains no preservatives. That can be difficult."

The Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt,has said the first 80,000 doses of the vaccine will be rolled out from Monday.

CERTIFIED CARRIER

  • Australia's first batch of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was flown from Brussels to Singapore, off-loaded and stored in a specially-designed cold room facility, then reloaded onto the Sydney-bound passenger plane.
  • Singapore Airlines' COVID-19 taskforce was set up in May 2020 to be ready for transporting the vaccine.
  • Singapore Airlines' cold-chain service THRUCOOL that can transport high-value, time-sensitive and temperature-controlled pharmaceutical cargo was launched in September 2018. It includes priority uplift and handling quick ramp transfers at airports, cold room facilities and thermal blankets and covers for crucial insulation from external factors.
  • Brisbane and Melbourne will be added to the THRUCOOL quality cold chain corridor network in September 2021
  • The airline will be using seven Boeing 747-400 freighters as well as their passenger aircraft fleet to transport vaccines.
  • Temperature-controlled containers are being supplied by several certified cold chain providers to handle the large volumes expected
  • Active tracking devices are used on board the aircraft to track the shipments and supply temperature readings throughout the journey
  • There's also a 24/7 cargo hub operations team to monitor vaccine shipments through their digital operations control tower
  • The airline was re-certified under IATA's CEIV Pharma program in January 2020 and achieved further accreditation in November 2020 to attest to its proficiency in managing temperature-controlled containers.
  • Between March 2020 and December 2020, Singapore Airlines carried more than 60,000 tonnes of cargo into Australia, including more than 2200 tonnes of PPE, pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and COVID-19 test kits.

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