Flying the coronavirus vaccine to the ends of the earth

Published: 22 Mar 2021

Vaughan Woodward, Deputy Director of MAF’s Global Disaster Response

As the UN–backed COVAX inoculation programme slowly rolls out across developing countries, MAF plays its part in transporting the vaccine and medical staff to the remotest places on earth. MAF’s Jo Lamb caught up with Vaughan Woodward - Deputy Director of MAF’s Global Disaster Response - to find out how MAF is helping to vaccinate the world…

To date, we’ve flown the coronavirus vaccine to Kalimantan in Indonesia and Lesotho in southern Africa, but prior to that, has MAF ever transported ‘cold-chain’ vaccines before?

MAF has a history of vaccine delivery - we are one of the ‘last mile’ delivery options to many remote locations. We’ve flown cool bags and bins full of vaccines packed with ice, freezer blocks or coolant.

MAF’s cold-chain delivery usually requires refrigerator temperatures, but recently we carried Ebola vaccines in the DRC, which required freezing temperatures maintained with dry ice.

What’s so different about delivering coronavirus vaccines?

The new technology mRNA coronavirus treatments require super chilling at -70°C, which is beyond our usual frozen cargo of -18°C.These temperatures can be maintained with dry ice, but there are aviation regulatory limitations on the quantity of dry ice that can be safely carried in MAF’s aircraft. The maximum approval is 200kg and a box of 995 Pfizer vaccines requires 23kg of dry ice.

A wide-scale vaccine distribution programme requires large amounts of dry ice to be carried on our aircraft. Protocols have been passed onto our programmes for when we carry vaccines that need to be ‘super-chilled’ with large quantities of dry ice. We’ve also purchased CO2 monitors for our aircraft for when we carry this dry ice. We’re looking into obtaining ‘super-chilling’ freezers for our aircraft.

What’s involved in a ‘last mile’ delivery of the coronavirus vaccine?

‘Last mile’ vaccine delivery somewhat depends on the infrastructure of a country. Many countries lack dry ice production or ‘super-chilling’ freezers needed for the storage and distribution of the mRNA treatments. As aero-logistical specialists, we have also considered the whole supply-chain issue and are working with authorities to ensure a smooth roll-out of the vaccination distribution programme.

The transportation of needles and syringes are just as important as the vaccine itself.  Delivering the vaccine without them would run the risk of vaccines spoiling or being left unused.

MAF needs to transport medical staff to remote areas to accompany the vaccine and to administer the doses. MAF will carry the vaccination team, the vaccines and other materials to support authorities as they run their remote vaccination programmes.

People in remote areas who lack freezers or any kind of refrigeration, need advance notice so that they can come to an airstrip for their vaccination. The whole delivery process will need to be coordinated to prevent vaccines spoiling.

MAF works with many community health-care workers who are coordinating such activities. During previous vaccination rollouts, we’ve worked with partners such as MedAir, Samaritan’s Purse and Medical Teams International who help plan the logistics.

'142 countries will be supplied with the vaccine under the COVAX programme of which MAF operates in 19 of them. We've already delivered doses to Kalimantan and Lesotho – now we’re waiting to hear from other health authorities.'

Vaughan Woodward - Deputy Director of MAF’s Global Disaster Response

As the COVAX programme rolls out across the globe, how is MAF responding?

MAF’s Disaster Response Department has asked all MAF hubs and affiliates around the world to gather information about vaccine delivery demands so that we are prepared for more requests.

142 countries will be supplied with the coronavirus vaccine under the COVAX programme of which MAF operates in 19 of them including Angola, Bangladesh, Chad, the DRC, Haiti, Indonesia, Kenya, Liberia, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, South Sudan, Tanzania, Timor-Leste and Uganda.

MAF has already delivered some vaccine doses to Kalimantan and Lesotho – now we’re waiting to hear from other health authorities in the countries where we work.

How vital is the equitable distribution of the coronavirus vaccine?

According to the ‘British Medical Journal’, COVAX has secured around 700 million vaccine doses, but that’s only enough to immunise just 10% of the people living in the lowest income countries - that's 67 countries on the COVAX distribution list.

A study by the ‘People’s Vaccine Alliance’ claims that rich countries - which comprise of just 14% of the global population - have acquired 53% of the eight most promising vaccines.

‘The Economist’ has produced a useful map, which shows which countries will access the coronavirus vaccine when.

As you can see from the map, many of the countries where MAF operates will not have access to the vaccine until at least April 2022. With such a long lead time to deliver the vaccine, this at least means MAF will have sufficient time to plan logistics with respective health authorities.