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Large dolly delivers pallets to side of plane for tail loading.

(Updated Feb. 16, 12:40 A.M. ET, with addition of more airlines)

Sixteen international airlines have signed up for UNICEF’s Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative and agreed to prioritize delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, essential medicines and other supplies to more than 100 lower-income countries.

The initiative supports the COVAX Facility, a coalition of the World Health Organization, the vaccine alliance Gavi and other groups, that is pooling purchases of COVID vaccines to ensure equitable access to nations around the world. Based on the COVAX Facility’s initial allocation plan, 145 countries will receive doses to immunize about 3% of their populations in the first half of 2021.

The participating airlines — AirBridgeCargo, Air France-KLM, Astral Aviation (Kenya), Brussels Airlines, Cargolux, Cathay Pacific (OTCUS: CPCAY), Emirates Sky Cargo, Ethiopian, Etihad, Qatar Airways, International Airlines Group (LSE: IAG), Korean Air, Lufthansa, Saudia, Singapore Airlines, United Airlines (NASDQ: UAL) and – are providing predictable capacity, as well as capabilities for ensuring strict temperature control and security, UNICEF said late Monday. 

“Delivery of these life-saving vaccines is a monumental and complex undertaking, considering the sheer volumes that need to be transported, the cold chain requirements, the number of expected deliveries and the diversity of routes” said Etleva Kadilli, director of UNICEF Supply Division, in a statement. “We are grateful to these airlines,” for supporting the vaccine rollout.

Flights are expected to begin later this quarter, with specific timetables depending on when countries authorize their use and an assessment of each airline’s route structure and capacity, said UNICEF spokeswoman Ann Reinking Whitener. Discussions are continuing with other air carriers to join the Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative.

Many airlines have been actively involved since December in the distribution of vaccines from Pfizer (NYSE: PFE) and German partner BioNTech, Moderna Inc., but most of those shipments are committed to the U.S., United Kingdom, European Union, Israel and other rich countries. The Sputnik V vaccine from Russia’s Gamaleya Research Institute is also being shipped to 13 countries, including Argentina. CanSino Biologic’s vaccine has been approved in China and Sinovac has clearance in Brazil, Chile, China, Indonesia and Turkey. 

COVAX has agreements in place to access more than 2 billion doses of several vaccines and negotiations continue to secure more allocations from manufacturers. It recently signed an agreement with Pfizer/BioNTech for up to 40 million doses of its vaccine. On Monday, WHO approved emergency use of two versions of the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine produced in South Korea and India, giving them the clearance to be rolled out globally through COVAX. So far, 150 million doses are earmarked for delivery in the first quarter, in addition to the Pfizer doses.

WHO, however, says it needs another $26 billion in donations from wealthy nations to support distribution to the world’s poor. 

Public health officials are concerned about vaccine nationalism and hoarding by countries that control development or can afford to buy vaccines. 

“Until we end the pandemic everywhere, we won’t end it anywhere,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a Jan. 25 press briefing. “As we speak, rich countries are rolling out vaccines, while the world’s least-developed countries watch and wait.”

Abu Dhabi, Dubai partnerships

Meanwhile, the neighboring emirates of Abu Dhabi and Dubai have formed competing umbrella organizations centered around their own national transportation companies to speed up vaccine deployment through their hub airports. 

Dubai’s effort, however, specifically seeks to address logistical challenges for lower-income countries. Two weeks ago, the government announced it was forming the Dubai Vaccine Logistics Alliance, bringing together the logistics and infrastructure capabilities of Dubai-based Emirates, ocean terminal operator DP World and Dubai Airport to help COVAX.

The alliance is working with a broad set of stakeholders, including pharmaceutical manufacturers, forwarders, government agencies and other entities for transportation of vaccines through Dubai Airport, which can store a large amount of vaccine doses and ship them anywhere in the world within 48 hours.

Emirates SkyCargo has over 162,000 square feet of cool chain space for pharmaceuticals across its terminals in Dubai and has already transported COVID vaccines for other customers.

International Humanitarian City, a huge hub for humanitarian logistics based in Dubai, is also a key partner in the Dubai Vaccine Logistics Alliance. IHC and Emirates SkyCargo have already partnered on many other types of humanitarian cargo flights. Since the start of the pandemic, IHC says it has helped distribute more than 80% of WHO’s global medical supplies for combating COVID-19,

Ports operator DP World’s role is to facilitate the collection of vaccines and related supplies from manufacturing sites in Europe, the U.S. and India and deliver them to airports, seaports and intermodal facilities. The company operates warehouses and distribution hubs in many locations, which will be used to store vaccines before distribution to hospitals and clinics, and has track-and-trace technology to give real-time information on the location and temperature status of each shipment. Ocean terminals, including Jebel Ali in Dubai, will primarily be used to ship and store medical equipment such as syringes and wipes.

In late January, DP World and UNICEF announced a wide-ranging partnership to support the global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines and related immunization supplies in low- and lower-middle-income countries. 

Late last year, the Abu Dhabi Department of Health spearheaded formation of the Hope Consortium, anchored by flag carrier Etihad, Abu Dhabi Ports and the health care purchasing arm of the Abu Dhabi Development holding company. Other partners include SkyCell, a Swiss manufacturer of temperature-controlled airfreight containers, and freight forwarders Agility, Aramex, Bolloré Logistics, CEVA Logistics, DB Schenker, DHL, FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX), Hellmann Worldwide Logistics, Kuehne + Nagel, MICCO Logistics, RSA Global and UPS (NYSE: UPS). 

The Hope Consortium says it offers a complete supply chain solution, including demand planning, transportation, regional storage and temperature monitoring, sourcing, training, regulatory clearance, last-mile delivery and information technology. Vaccines will be stored at Abu Dhabi Ports Co. facilities and transported worldwide by Etihad Cargo.

Etihad Cargo chartered seven Boeing 777-300 aircraft in early December to deliver temperature-sensitive vaccines to Abu Dhabi International Airport for Abu Dhabi’s G42 Healthcare, which were transferred by truck to refrigerated warehouses at Abu Dhabi Ports Co. for storage. 

In related news, DHL Global Forwarding, the air and ocean freight arm of Deutsche Post DHL (DXE: DPW), said Monday it was awarded the contract to distribute the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to Japan. The news release didn’t identify the vaccine maker, but a reference to keeping the vaccine at minus 70 degrees Celsius during transit made clear which vaccine was involved. DHL said it installed deep freezers at a storage facility to maintain the vaccine’s integrity. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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