Photo: Latam Airlines/Courtesy

Airlines are engaged in the transportation of COVID-19 vaccines in Latin America

Vaccination may begin in December 2020 in the region and distribution of the immunizers depends on the airway

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Airlines have played a key role in transporting medical equipment and supplies since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, either within countries or on transoceanic flights. And with vaccines about to be applied in Latin America – vaccination has already started in the United Kingdom -, companies in the region will once again have a strategic role in combating the novel coronavirus.

Mexico should be the first Latin American country to start vaccination, in December 2020. Argentine President Alberto Fernández announced that he plans to vaccinate 300,000 people by the end of the year. Brazil‘s government said that the first doses can also be applied in December, even without a clear plan for that. And from the beginning of 2021, other countries in the region may start the vaccination campaign.

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The transportation of vaccines, supplies such as syringes, and equipment will necessarily be done via airlines. This happens because of the nature of these products. The immunizer developed by Pfizer / BioNTech, for example, needs to be stored at a temperature of -70 ºC (-94 ºF). It is the one chosen by Mexico for the first phase of the immunization. In this case, only air transportation will be able to properly distribute vaccines.

Azul Cargo could transport COVID-19 vaccines to remote areas in Brazil. Photo: Azul/Courtesy

Also, there is the agility factor, especially in countries where the distances are long and where there are areas of difficult access by land. In a few hours, the plane can reach the destination and fuel the cities with doses and equipment.

Vaccines are not just any commodity. During the pandemic, they are more valuable. It is not by chance that the International Air Transport Association (IATA) released a specific document on vaccine transportation in November, with recommendations for governments, airlines, and logistics companies.

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There are four major areas that the entity points out as keys to the satisfactory distribution of immunizers by air. The first one is connectivity, which needs to be restored to levels before the pandemic to reach the entire population.

Then comes the question of proper storage inside the plane, without risk of damage to the product and maintenance of temperature. The third one is the agility in customs clearance of cargo when arriving from another country. Finally, security, so that vaccines are not targeted by criminals.

Iata believes that Latin American airlines are prepared for this challenge. “They have invested time and resources in the implementation of global industry standards, as well as in continuous quality improvement programs, such as CEIV Pharma, harmonizing and aligning processes with the demands of the industry and properly training their employees”, explains the general manager of communication for Iata in Latin America and the Caribbean, Markus Ruediger.

Ruediger stresses that governments have an important role to play in helping airlines and ensuring the delivery of immunizers to more places. “The global route network has been reduced dramatically from the 22,000 routes that airlines used to offer before the pandemic. One of the first actions that governments must take is to reestablish air connectivity to ensure adequate capacity for the distribution of vaccines,” he stated.

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Airlines will carry vaccines for free

Brazil is a country of continental dimensions and lack of good roads in many regions. This became clear from the need to transport medical equipment, such as respirators, and personal protective equipment. It was the plane that made these products circulate within the country.

For vaccination, Brazilian companies have already made themselves available to health authorities. There is still no specific plan for how the logistics will work, as this must be defined by the Brazil’s Ministry of Health. However, they guarantee that they can carry out the distribution, and do that for free.

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Azul was the first airline to announce that it will transport immunizers free of charge to the federal government or state and municipal governments. The company, which transported 20 tons of respirators, 4.8 million rapid tests, and 15 tons of testing equipment, said it could replicate that, now with vaccines.

Azul used its passenger’s aircrafts for transportation of COVID-19 rapid testes. Photo: Azul/Courtesy

“Due to the expertise of its business, Azul’s cargo unit believes it has the necessary attributes to assist in the distribution of vaccines across the country and will be available to any public and private calls to provide these logistics,” it informed in a press note sent to LABS.

The gratuity was announced on December 9th and will be available in the cargo spaces of the aircrafts that carry out the regular flights. That is, if there is a need to transport vaccines within Azul’s aerial network, it will be carried out free of charge.

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“We know the importance of this mission and we want to encourage all logistics and transportation companies in Brazil to do the same. Now is the time for us all to work together and support Brazil,”announced the company’s president, John Rodgerson.

After Azul announced that it would transport the vaccines free of charge, Gol followed the same path in the same day. “The entire wide flight network of the company will have space on the aircraft to take the products to all the necessary places,” communicated the company via the press office.

Gol was the first Brazilian airline to allow healthcare professionals to travel free of charge. Now it is the vaccine’s turn, which will be carried out in actions led by Gol Log, the company’s cargo, and logistics arm.

The day after Azul and Gol’s announcement, on December 10, the Latam group said it would also cede the hold of aircraft on domestic flights for the distribution of the COVID-19 immunizer. The company operates internally in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.

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According to the company, it “is available and in contact with several authorities in South America to make transport related to the vaccine against COVID-19 feasible”. Also, it told LABS that “it will inform in due time if the firm confirms any domestic or international operation in this regard.”

Latam was the first airline on the continent to receive CEIV Pharma certification from Iata, which complies with some recommendations in the transport of pharmaceutical material. The company used the expertise to transport more than 3 tons of cargo with hospital supplies and equipment to countries in South America.

The pandemic experience prepares Mexico for vaccines

The transport of COVID-19 vaccines, in large quantities, and with reasonable capillarity, is something new for airlines. Even so, in Mexico, they are preparing to be part of the immunization supply chain.

Aeroméxico Cargo, Aeroméxico’s air cargo division, already transports pharmaceutical supplies. However, to meet the requirements of manufacturers and governments, it is seeking CEIV Pharma certification. It can be especially useful for transportation from factories in the United States and Europe to Mexico.

Aeroméxico has been transporting medical equipment since the beginning of the pandemic. Photo: Aeroméxico/Courtesy

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“The importance of this type of certification lies in ensuring the best handling of goods as essential as pharmaceuticals under the manufacturers’ specifications, to guarantee the necessary effectiveness,” pointed out Aeroméxico in a press statement.

In the domestic market, low-cost company Volaris can have more effective participation. The firm has the largest domestic market share and the one that flies to more cities in Mexico.

Volaris already transported medical supplies and equipment amid the pandemic. Photo: Airbus/Courtesy

This capillarity was useful at the beginning of the pandemic when there was a need to distribute medical equipment. Even though air cargo is not Volaris’ main vocation, the luggage holds of the company’s aircraft are capable of transporting pharmaceutical supplies.

“Vaccine transportation is an initiative that we support at Volaris. We are in talks with the authorities to work together when the time comes, ” the company told LABS.