Air cargo’s COVID-19 arms race

A big blue cargo jet with a white top gets ready to receive temperature-controlled containes.

More airlines and logistics firms are fortifying their pharmaceutical handling capabilities and credentials ahead of an expected COVID-19 vaccine release.

Several companies this week announced new product offerings, investments or logistics arrangements aimed at vaccine manufacturers. Industry officials have warned that there isn’t enough cold-chain infrastructure worldwide to support an immediate delivery schedule, and urged governments and companies to identify gaps in the delivery system and make any necessary investment.

Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam is trying to position itself as the European hub for COVID-19 vaccine logistics, marketing its strong global connections, pharmaceutical-handling experience and preparations for a vaccine rollout.

There are 23 companies participating in the Pharma Gateway Amsterdam, created four years ago to offer shippers pharmaceutical products that are certified by the International Air Transport Association for reliability in maintaining pharma shipments at proper temperatures, speed and transparency..

Qatar Airways said it is leasing an undisclosed number of SkyCell temperature-controlled containers to give drug makers more shipping options for their sensitive products. The hybrid, battery-powered refrigerated containers can maintain products in different temperatures for up to 8.4 days, and self-charge automatically in a cold warehouse or refrigerated truck. Sensors are tied to wireless communication units that enable constant temperature monitoring.

Qatar Airways’ QR Pharma product allows shippers the ability to remotely adjust temperature settings as needed, as well as passive equipment that keeps medicines within a specified temperature range during transit. 

Qatar Airways Cargo has invested heaving in cold-storage infrastructure, personnel and procedures. It has 77 destinations with pharmaceutical capabilities, including new additions in Osaka, Japan; Campinas, Brazil; Santiago, Chile; and Bogotá, Colombia. At its Doha hub it uses refrigerated trucks for quick ramp transfers.

QR Pharma volumes grew 14.5% in 2019 versus the prior year, the company said. 

Etihad Aviation Group launched PharmaLife, an upgraded replacement for its TempCheck product designed to better meet demand from the healthcare sector for fast, secure transport of medical products such as the COVID vaccine.

“The pandemic prompted a reassessment of our top-level services to ensure we can address the specific requirements for shipping high volumes of in-demand product in very short timescales,” said Andre Blech, head of operations and service delivery at Etihad Cargo, in a news release. “To avoid last minute pressure once a vaccine is approved, we have established a dedicated COVID-19 vaccines workforce composed of a steering committee and a working group to manage all anticipated elements.”

PharmLife offers customers two options: passive temperature-control with equipment that keeps products within three temperature ranges (+2 degrees Celsius to +25 degrees Celsius, +2 to +8 degrees, and +15 to +25 degrees) and active monitoring and temperature control. 

Etihad, which is certified by the International Air Transport Association for exceeding best practices in handling pharmaceutical products, said PharmaLife will focus on big gateways such as Abu Dhabi, Chicago, Hyderabad, London, Shanghai and Singapore and expand across its network. 

It also plans to expand its Abu Dhabi pharmaceutical facility and buy more thermal covers, the company said.

In recent weeks Lufthansa, Air France-KLM-Martinair Cargo, Kuehne + Nagel, and Nippon Express also announced expansions of their temperature-controlled networks and capabilities.

AirBridgeCargo, under the direction of UPS Healthcare, this week transported 12 SkyCell containers loaded with vaccines from Hong Kong to Amsterdam. It also has moved active temperature-controlled containers made by CSafe. ABC, part of the Volga-Dnepr Group in Russia, said it is using these trips as a dress rehearsal for transporting COVID-19 vaccines once they are approved.

The scheduled airline is trying various loading options with vaccine containers to carry as much medicine as possible on each flight.

ABC, which is IATA-certified, said it experienced a 150% jump in temperature-sensitive pharmaceutical shipments during the first seven months of the year, to more than 40,000 tons.

Meanwhile, the latest pharmaceutical company to rely on air cargo to help prepare for COVID vaccine distribution is West Pharmaceutical Services.

The Exton, Pennsylvania, drug maker received two huge pharmaceutical rubber stopper presses from a manufacturer in Germany, spokeswoman Michele Pelkowski confirmed. The equipment arrived a week ago at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, according to a news release issued by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The stoppers will be used to contain injectable medications, including COVID-19 vaccines. 

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