Ethiopian Airlines is taking the lead among African airlines by transporting the continent’s first doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, which arrived on a cargo flight from Beijing to Addis Ababa over the weekend. The flight was the culmination of large investments Ethiopian has made in its pharmaceutical and temperature-controlled transport facilities.
The carrier operated a cargo flight from Beijing to Addis Ababa with vaccines en route to N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, carrying doses of the Sinovac Chinese Covid-19 vaccine. Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines being used in the the U.S. and much of the West, the Chinese-developed vaccine can be stored at ordinary refrigerator temperatures. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require storage at -70 and -20 degrees Celsius, respectively.
But even the Sinovac vaccine’s less onerous requirements pose logistical challenges in a region with poor infrastructure. In anticipation of Covid vaccine transport, Ethiopian Airlines last year invested in its Pharma Wing, a temperature-controlled facility capable of handling cold storage and local transport. Key to vaccine transport is maintaining the “cold chain,” or controlling the temperature of a shipment from point of manufacture, on the aircraft, and through ground shipment on both ends of the journey. The company also launched cargo flights to Asia via Anchorage.
“We will be repeating the remarkable and globally recognized success in leading the fast delivery of [personal protective equipment] few months ago with similar delivery speed, professional handling and maintaining the cool chain during the global vaccine distribution,” Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam said in a statement.
The airline last year pivoted its cargo operations to focus on transporting medical supplies to Africa and throughout its network. “We are carrying medical supplies in both scheduled and charter flights using the cabin and belly hold of our passenger aircraft besides our cargo fleet,” Gebremariam said last year. “Despite the grim situation the world is grappling with, we feel heartened by the small contribution we are making to curb further loss of lives by carrying critical medical supplies where they are needed the most.”
Cold-chain logistics have proven a challenge for vaccine transport. Fewer than 50 airlines worldwide have the requisite facilities to handle cargo that needs to be stored at extreme cold temperatures. Regulators around the world have relaxed rules governing dry ice in the belly holds of aircraft, ensuring that medical supplies can be carried safely. But ground handling remains daunting, requiring cold containers, storage, and delivery trucks.
Last year, IATA warned that governments around the world needed to step in to help airlines transport what would be the world’s most valuable commodity by easing customs regulations to reduce the amount of time cargo sat at airports. The trade group also called on governments to beef up security at airport cargo facilities.
Vaccine transport has taken a priority, but capacity remains constrained. IATA estimates that it would require 8,000 Boeing 747 freighters to ship enough doses to vaccinate the world’s population — far beyond existing capacity.
Air freight has been buoying many airlines’ financial results, and carriers like United Airlines, American Airlines, Turkish Airlines, and Singapore Airlines, to cite a few, are capitalizing on this demand by converting passenger aircraft to carry freight. But it’s still not enough. Cargo capacity last year was down more than 20 percent as airlines grounded widebodies on mostly shuttered international routes.
“With much of the passenger fleet grounded, meeting demand without belly capacity continues to be an enormous challenge,” IATA Director General Alexandre de Juniac said last month.