The global aviation industry, laid low by the pandemic, is gearing up to play a critical role in delivering the billions of vaccine doses the world needs to fight Covid-19.
Airlines are using passenger jets for cargo-only flights and revamping handling procedures. Airports, meantime, are bolstering security at depots handling the shots and adding or expanding cold-storage facilities to keep doses at their required temperature.
Pfizer Inc. and Germany’s BioNTech SE—pharmaceutical partners that currently make the only approved vaccine in the West—used trucks to move early shipments from a factory in Belgium to the UK and from a Michigan plant to US health agencies and hospitals. But industry experts estimate that as more vaccines are approved and distribution kicks into full gear, about half of the doses being transported around the world will go by plane.
“In January it really starts,” said Dorothea von Boxberg, chief executive of Deutsche Lufthansa AG’s cargo unit, which is bidding for contracts to fly vaccines globally. She said she expects the air shipments to peak in 2021’s second quarter.
Big air-cargo hubs such as Memphis and Chicago are used to handling millions of flu and measles vaccines each year, but smaller airports have stepped up efforts in preparation for the Covid-19 shots as well.