COVID-19 vaccines and the supply chain challenges

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AmbrishKumar_100.jpgBy Dr Ambrish Kumar, Founder and Group CEO, AAA 2 Innovate Pvt Ltd

The world is waiting for the COVID-19 vaccine. Distributing it globally from its points of production is a gargantuan task. In fact, it is a task some feel should best be left to the expertise of military logistics.

The vaccine is beginning its rollout on the heels of large scale, global logistics and distribution stoppages. Those tasked with its distribution are on the backfoot.

The spread of the virus has grown exponentially in certain regions, compelling lockdowns and an unprecedented hindrance to countless businesses. One of the most affected sectors, since the very beginning and still, is the aviation and air travel sector.

Temporary recovery of air cargo
Globalisation and trade liberalisation between nations happen to be the Pandora's box for air cargo movement. The movement of goods by air has, fortunately, not been as affected as its counterpart, that is, passenger air travel. There was a noticeable slump in 2020 air cargo volumes (year-on-year comparison), but the dip is not as bad as was expected. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the global figures of air cargo movement year-to-date until July 2020 was only 13% lower than the previous year. At the beginning of the pandemic, we expected this number to be much more on the negative side of the graph.

The challenges being faced to cater to air cargo demand
The demand for certain goods has increased - mainly pharmaceuticals, vaccines, medicines as well as medical, surgical and hospital supplies. The demand for other commodities has also picked up momentum with the re-opening of the major economies of the world.

While ocean freight capacity has remained steady, air freight capacity has drastically gone down.

The major reason for this is the non-operation of scheduled passenger flights along many routes across the globe. This has led to a serious reduction in 'belly capacity'. Wide-bodied passenger aircraft with larger belly capacity are mostly grounded and non-operational. Carriers are managing with narrow-bodied aircraft as per passenger demands on feasible routes to save on landing, parking, fuel and other operational costs. It is only freighters/cargo-only aircraft, passenger aircraft converted to freighters, or ferry passenger flights that operate based on demand at their usual levels.

However, there are serious limitations on these narrow-bodied aircraft for goods that require special handling, such as temperature control, unitised loading, heavy goods, big-sized cargo and so on. While wide-bodied aircraft with a good payload can carry anywhere between 10-30 tons per flight, the capacity of a narrow-bodied aircraft is only 2-6 tons per flight.

Moreover, smaller aircraft cannot fly for more than four to five hours at a stretch, which means long-haul air cargo movement is a serious concern. And their use is directly proportional to the costs incurred: the lesser the capacity, the higher the cost of air freight.

The logistics of the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine: a serious challenge
With most of the leading vaccine candidates across the world manufacturing and producing vaccines for the 7.8-billion global population, the massive challenge is the global distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. The effort will need robust and falter-proof supply chain integration and a phenomenal air cargo capacity right from the beginning of 2021.

Vaccines require express and quick transportation. There is a need for large cold storage facilities at transit points and most international gateways, such as airports. Most importantly, the air cargo capacity will be in high demand to get the vaccines available to various parts of the world. Considering that vaccines have special handling requirements, there will be a need for palletisation and the unitisation of goods, which need wide-bodied aircraft and freighters to operate in large numbers.

A risk factor that cannot be ignored is the security of the vaccines. As the vaccines are what every person in the world is currently looking to, there will be cases of pilferage, tampering and robbery during transit. Vaccines thus require special planning, secure loading and safeguarding throughout movement. The logistics requirement for the vaccines would be in line with that followed for the movement of valuable goods, such as gold, silver or currency notes.

What we wished
This is the time when rigorous information technology-enabled solutions, supply chain transparency and visibility, risk mitigation and seamless logistics management are sought with the help of the latest technologies, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence.

In a nutshell, the whole world is fervently waiting for the vaccine and we ought to work together to make this mission possible!

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