Schiphol airport organizes cargo community to expedite COVID vaccine distribution

A label for pharmaceutical shipment showing a thermometer and the temperature range needed for the product. Cold chain logistics will be critical for delivery of coronavirus vaccines.

Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport was out front in recent years organizing the cargo community to become highly proficient in handling temperature-sensitive pharmaceutical products. Now the airfreight industry at Europe’s fourth-largest cargo airport is taking steps to make sure it can safely and efficiently transport COVID-19 vaccines once approved.

A task force led by local trade association Air Cargo Netherlands (ACN), Schiphol Cargo and Air France KLM Martinair Cargo, including shippers, drugmakers, forwarders, airlines, ground handlers and trucking companies recently held an initial meeting to discuss handling shipments for four possible vaccine scenarios based on different temperature ranges.

Some vaccines in development will require being frozen to minus 80 degrees Celsius and involve more than one dose, adding to the logistics complexity and anticipated volumes.

The vaccine readiness group will host a roundtable Tuesday on how to map capacity across the air supply chain and develop contingency plans. Dutch Customs and the Dutch Ministry of Health are scheduled to participate in the meeting. 

Industry officials and medical groups are concerned that the logistics sector, particularly in airfreight, does not have adequate cold storage facilities and equipment needed to rush huge quantities of temperature-sensitive vaccines under strict protocols around the world to help stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Stepping up to the challenge

Representatives for international airlines and logistics companies say thousands of big freighter jets will be required at a time when air transport capacity is already scarce. Temperature-controlled warehouses, refrigerated containers, dry ice and technology to monitor temperature conditions and alert stakeholders about any deviation are also necessary but not equally available around the world. Industry experts are urging governments, aid organizations, drug manufacturers and logistics companies to collaborate on removing regulatory barriers to efficient transportation and investing in the necessary infrastructure.

Increased security and strict transfer protocols between parties will also need to be part of any vaccine delivery process.

Governments and pharmaceutical companies are planning to use trucks for distribution wherever local manufacturing is available, but air cargo is expected to be used to reach many parts of the world or when expedited delivery is required. 

“We have a strong pharma and air cargo community at Schiphol, we know what we are talking about and we will be ready for what is coming,” said Maarten van As, ACN’s managing director, in a news release. “It is not just about the Netherlands, it is about getting the vaccine distributed at speed to the world.”

The coalition said the Dutch Civil Aviation Authority has been very effective in quickly granting permissions for COVID-19 ad hoc flights, something the International Air Transport Association has pleaded with other governments to do.

“We are now focusing on a fast and swift handling process on the tarmac, getting the vaccines as soon as possible to the end customer via the distribution channels rather than storing them at the airport,” said Ferry van der Ent, director of business development for Schiphol Cargo, in the airport update. 

Amsterdam plans to coordinate with other air hubs and facilities that meet the World Health Organization’s stringent standards for pharmaceutical distribution, as well as with the nearby ports of Amsterdam and Rotterdam to learn what certified cooling capacity they have to offer, he added.  

Under the initiative, the cargo community will continue to work closely with Dutch Customs and other agencies to ensure fast release of goods and priority inspections.  

Supply chain partners in Amsterdam say they plan to speed up transfers between logistics and transport partners by using last-minute deliveries, quick pickups and airside delivery or pickup. 

“We have a responsibility as an airline to make sure the vaccines get to the right place and we need to consider the whole journey, especially the last mile and especially for places where it can be a challenge to get the last mile right,” said Enrica Calonghi, global head of pharmaceutical logistics at Air France KLM Martinair Cargo.

Air France KLM Martinair cold room

The airline group separately announced it is expanding temperature-controlled capacity at its Schiphol pharmaceutical hub to prepare for the distribution of COVID vaccines. The investment will add 6,760 square feet of cold space able to handle products at temperatures between 2 degrees C and 8 degrees C. Earlier this year, the company built a smaller refrigerated room at the airport.

Both cold rooms feature fast-close doors to limit exposure to warm air, a temperature alarm system and central monitoring. 

Air France KLM Martinair, which is certified by IATA for exceeding best practices for handling drugs and biological supplies, has made pharmaceutical and health care transport a strategic priority. It recently formed a task force to consult with manufacturers and freight forwarders to define what steps are needed to help ship COVID-19 vaccines. I

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


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