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November 17, 2020 3:15 PM, EST

UN Recruits UPS, FedEx, Dozens of Others to Deliver Vaccine to World’s Poor

A FedEx cargo plane sits idle at the Richmond International Airport in Virginia.A FedEx cargo plane sits idle at the Richmond International Airport in Virginia. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

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United Nations humanitarian relief agency Unicef is looking to recruit some of the airline industry’s biggest operators to help distribute a coronavirus vaccine to the world’s poorest nations.

Unicef, which normally provides aid to children, held a call with about 40 carriers Nov. 16 to make plans for the global airlift and to identify what tasks each party can perform, according to Glyn Hughes, head of cargo at the International Air Transport Association, which helped arrange the meeting.

Unicef, already the world’s largest buyer of vaccines, is leading efforts to purchase and distribute shots to 92 states with funds from the GAVI immunization program, which brings together governments, the World Health Organization and World Bank. Another 80 higher-income countries have chosen it to procure inoculations they will buy, extending the plan to 70% of the world’s population.

The summons to airlines was triggered by positive late-stage trial results reported by Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. on two separate vaccines, Hughes said. Neither has yet been approved for use, but attention is turning toward how a successful shot can be distributed, especially to less well off countries without the resources for mass purchases.

A UPS cargo plane sits idle at Richmond International Airport in Virginia.

A UPS cargo plane sits idle at Richmond International Airport in Virginia. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Largest Airlines

About 30 of the largest cargo airlines were invited to participate in the call, Hughes said. They included express-delivery specialists such as FedEx Corp. and UPS Inc. and dedicated freighter operators like Cargolux Airlines International SA. FedEx and UPS rank No. 1 and 2, respectively, on the Transport Topics Top 50 list of the largest global freight carriers. The two companies also rank highly on the Transport Topics lists for the largest logistics companies and for-hire carriers in North America.

Airline groups with large cargo divisions including Deutsche Lufthansa AG also took part, alongside passenger carriers with experience in moving specialist goods like Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. Other participants were regional carriers from Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, where work will largely focus.

Initial efforts will provide shots for about 20% of local populations, beginning with medical staff and other key groups, most likely using vaccines with less demanding temperature requirements, Hughes said. In normal times, Unicef supplies more than 2 billion inoculations a year, which in 2019 had a value of almost $1.7 billion.

Huge Shortfall

IATA estimates that the equivalent of 8,000 110-ton capacity Boeing Co. 747 cargo planes will be needed for the global vaccine airlift.

The industry has about 2,000 dedicated freighters which usually carry about half of all goods moved by air, while 2,500 passenger planes are currently operating in cargo-only roles. That still leaves a huge shortfall that can only be filled through the opening up of more routes by governments, Hughes said.

RELATED: Pfizer Vaccine Road Map Shows Logistical, Financial Obstacles

While freighter operators are currently in their busy pre-Christmas season carrying stock for retailers, Hughes said it’s vital planes are kept ready going into next year at a time when some might otherwise be parked.

“The last thing we want is for aircraft to be put back into the desert,” he said.

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