Porting 1 billion Covid-19 vaccines in 18 months, the Emirates way

Porting 1 billion Covid-19 vaccines in 18 months, the Emirates way
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Julian Sutch, Head of Global Sales Pharma, Emirates SkyCargo

Just three days shy of World Health Day, Emirates SkyCargo announced that it had transported more than 1 billion Covid-19 vaccines in a span of 18 months. Of this number, two-thirds were transported safely to developing countries thereby setting a template for supporting global communities in their recovery and fight against the devastation caused by the Coronavirus pandemic.

From creating a dedicated GDP-certified airside hub for transport of Covid-19 vaccines and mapping global logistics for the movement of Covid-19 vaccines to creating a special task force, teaming up with various logistics partners, meeting virtually across time zones, and innovating along the way - the incredible journey has set several benchmarks in achieving this historic milestone. Lakshmi Ajay of The STAT Trade Times speaks with Julian Sutch, Head of Global Sales Pharma, Emirates SkyCargo to find out how this feat was achieved.

Could you give us a sense of the size and scale of this operation? When did it start, how many flights have carried COVID-19 vaccines, to which all nations, what is the current number of vaccines distributed, how many shippers were involved in the same, what are some of the airports and nonprofit organizations (if any) that enabled this particular endeavor to take shape, etc?
At the start of April 2022, Emirates SkyCargo had transported more than 4,200 tonnes of Covid-19 vaccines. This was the equivalent of more than one billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines. We had transported these vaccines on over 2000 Emirates flights from more than 35 origins to over 80 destinations across six continents. It was a truly global effort working with every major manufacturer of vaccines across different geographies. We also worked closely with local stakeholders including the various airports and ground handling partners across major origin and destination airports.

Was there a war room at the headquarters and a task force that was created for this particular endeavor and dedicated for the same? How many people were part of this task force and did they undergo any training? Did they strictly work on vaccine transportation or also enable other shipments as well?
In October 2020, we set up a Covid-19 vaccine transportation task force that was charged with making sure that requests for transportation of Covid-19 vaccines were handled with utmost priority. The task force included specialists from various teams within Emirates and Emirates SkyCargo.

The task force met virtually to coordinate transportation requests from across the world and time zones. There was no specific training for the team members as task force members were already subject matter experts and Emirates SkyCargo has more than two decades of experience in transporting pharmaceuticals. Over the last six years, we have also invested significantly in our infrastructure and processes for handling temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals and hence we were well prepared for this effort.

Do give us details about your work with the COVAX: ensuring global equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines? How and when did Emirates become a stakeholder in this endeavor and what were some of the deliverables that Emirates has completed as part of this initiative?
In February 2021, Emirates SkyCargo signed an MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) with UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) to prioritize the transport and delivery of Covid-19 vaccines and related supplies in support of the COVAX initiative for equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines. Since then, we have worked with UNICEF and other partners to transport Covid-19 vaccines to many countries in the developing world.

How has this initiative of delivering Covid-19 vaccines to developing nations aided them?
Emirates SkyCargo has placed a high priority on facilitating the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to developing nations. With our hub and extensive infrastructure in Dubai along with the reach of our network and frequency of flights, we are very well placed to distribute vaccines to markets across the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

Emirates SkyCargo's vaccine transportation programme has supported national vaccination delivery initiatives in many markets. For example, in Pakistan, by March 2022, Emirates SkyCargo had transported over 60 million doses of vaccines and this was more than 25% of the total number of vaccines that had been administered in the country at that point in time.

What were some of the internal protocols and mechanisms that were developed that the crew at Emirates SkyCargo had to adhere to in a bid to fully and efficiently streamline and operationalize the Covid-19 vaccine transportation? Has any kind of technological innovation or digitalization moves aided Emirates in completing this initiative or in providing visibility and track and trace to the vaccine shipments. Was this developed in-house or services were from another agency? If so, do mention the same and how it aided in the transportation of vaccines?
One of the initiatives we put in place was the creation of a special shipping code for Covid-19 vaccine shipments. With this code in the system, we were able to track Covid-19 vaccine shipments closely from origin to destination. This was done to ensure that the shipment moved rapidly from origin to destination and in the correct conditions.

Since vaccines need to be transported in a temperature-controlled environment, how was this vaccine efficacy maintained throughout the supply chain? Do tell us about what packaging standards were used by shippers to ensure the temperatures were maintained throughout the journey? Do tell us about the cool-chain facilities that were used in this initiative and if any additional infrastructure or facilities were built for this?
Covid-19 vaccines are normally transported in specially prepared packaging by vaccine manufacturers that are able to sustain the low temperatures required to protect the integrity of the vaccines. Carriers such as Emirates SkyCargo then transport the packages under normal temperature-controlled ranges (2-8 or 15-25 degrees Celsius).

In Dubai, we had set up a dedicated GDP-certified handling facility for pharmaceuticals in 2016. In 2021, we expanded our pharma cool chain infrastructure with a temperature-controlled environment (2-25 degrees Celsius) for the storage and handling of vaccines and other pharmaceuticals at Emirates SkyCargo's purpose-built GDP-certified facility at Dubai International Airport. The new extension can hold an estimated 60-90 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines at one time.

Newer vaccines to combat Covid-19 have been developed and are ready for use. Are there any newer vaccines that will be transported by Emirates SkyCargo - if so do mention the details of the same?
Yes, we have started moving shipments of Covid-19 related treatments such as antivirals that have been approved by regulatory authorities in addition to vaccines. We are unable to provide details of individual brands.

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