Health experts have warned that the COVID-19 pandemic won’t truly “end” until every coronavirus case is treated and vaccinated.
That task could prove to be a huge issue for private cargo companies, especially air cargo transporters, if a potential vaccine requires specific storage conditions like extreme cold.
“Marketplace Morning Report” host David Brancaccio spoke with Julian Sutch, head of Emirates SkyCargo’s pharmaceutical division, about some of the top logistical issues around a global distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine and what they can do to start addressing them. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: You and your team do this for a living. I mean, do you think the industry is ready for what will be required to get hope for vaccines where they need to go?
Julian Sutch: You know, there are a lot of potential challenges out there. I think luckily, a lot of people are very quickly becoming aware of these challenges. And everyone is very much focused on working together to try and you know, get over some of these challenges that we may potentially face.
Brancaccio: This is going to take a lot of planes. You have some of them. Are there enough?
Sutch: There is a fair amount of capacity in the market, right? But I mean, there are lots of variables that have happened recently with COVID. And of course, all airlines had to ground their aircraft fleets. So very quickly, you know, we were able to start uplifting our aircraft to different markets to start moving the produce once COVID had impacted the world. However, you know, there’s a large proportion of global air freight is carried in the belly of passenger aircrafts. And a lot of these are still grounded. So, there have been capacity constraints. But I think it’s all about priorities — so when we saw the rush of PPE equipment, moving all over the world. But it really all depends seasonally when these vaccines are potentially going to be ready. Hopefully, I think the answer is yes. There will be capacity, but I think it’s very much key that a focus is put on moving this capacity.
The challenges of shipping vaccines at cold temperatures
Brancaccio: Now, your people have expertise in not just moving, produce and other cargo, but specifically medicines, but also medicines that need some refrigeration — minus 5 Celsius, 23 degrees Fahrenheit. But what if some of these vaccines need super cold refrigeration like dry ice temperature, minus 80 Celsius? That’s a special challenge.
Sutch: Right. Generally, pharmaceuticals move between 2 to 8 degrees and 15 to 25 degrees, but vaccines predominantly move in 5 degrees. Now this COVID vaccine, yes is different. And some of the manufacturers out there have come to us and come out to the world to say that they’re going to have to move deep frozen. Now, when you move deep frozen, there are a lot more complexities to that. There are a number of different passive packaging solutions you can use. But agreed, dry ice is what is needed. And if you go super deep frozen, you need large quantities of dry ice. So aircraft also have dry ice limitations, right? So dry ice is classified as a dangerous good. And as per, you know, Boeing or Airbus, or the manufacturers and our engineering teams basically come out with the allowance on the aircraft. So there are going to be some difficulties in moving, let’s say, singular large volumes of dry ice on the aircraft.
Brancaccio: I mean, we live in a time, right, where there are restrictions limiting the spread of coronavirus, which could add friction at international borders. Are there efforts to reduce the chances that these could get in the way of you moving vaccines?
How coronavirus travel restrictions could complicate shipping a COVID vaccine
Sutch: I think as Emirates and as an airline, our responsibility is to speak with our customers, being the shippers and especially our freight forwarders, who we work with very closely. And it’s our job to kind of move those vaccines when they’re needed, in the volumes they’re needed, to the destinations they need to go to. When it comes to any other factors around that, then I think that is potentially as it were out of our scope of work. I think what’s going to be different with these vaccines is that, you know, predominantly these, these move from shippers to consignees, distributors, etc. But this is very much going to be controlled by governments, as far as I’m aware. So our position as the airline is to make sure we keep these vaccines at the right temperature, moving the volumes that are needed from the manufacturing sites to wherever they are going to.
Brancaccio: You mentioned the Triple Seven, the Boeing 777. I mean, that’s when it’s a cargo configuration can carry an enormous amount of cargo?
Sutch: Correct. So as Emirates we have a fleet of Triple Seven cargo planes. And we also have a large quantity of passenger Triple Seven planes. So if you would look at a Triple Seven dedicated freighter aircraft, you’d be looking at moving over 100 tons. In a passenger, just say you have a passenger plane full of passengers, you may get up to 25 tons, let’s say, in the belly of that aircraft. However, if you then use the dynamics of dense cargo, I mean I can give an example of like gold and mangoes and fruit and stuff, which is very dense, you can then dramatically increase the amount of weight you can carry.
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