Air cargo increasingly proving to be a key link in logistics chain

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NOV 24, 2015: The last quarter of the year is a busy time for cargo carriers. There are a countless of festivals, celebrations and parties crowding the end of the year; all of which result in significant cargo movements. However, in the Northern Hemisphere there is a much less welcome cause for the winter cargo peak: the annual flu season.

While the flu season is by no means a new occurrence, it is possibly more pressing than ever. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, we have an aging population. Advances in medical science mean that people are generally living longer. Age, however, weakens the immune system and leaves us more vulnerable to respiratory infection from flu viruses. Secondly, flu is evolving more rapidly, as urbanisation and the continued industrialisation of agriculture forces humans into closer contact, both with each other and with animals. Cramped living conditions are evolutionary rocket fuel for flu viruses, and in recent years we have seen a proliferation of new and dangerous varieties of flu; most notably the infamous bird flu.

In the battle against flu, the best weapon in our armory is still the flu vaccine. Influenza has the potential to kill on vast scale and in the past has been responsible for many millions of deaths in single pandemics (the 1918 pandemic being perhaps the most famous of these), so ensuring the most vulnerable are vaccinated is a critical priority for governments and health organisations all over the world. This effort is as much logistical as it is medical. After all, ensuring vaccines get to where they are needed when they are needed is no easy task.

The flu season is year-round – one hemisphere’s summer is another’s winter – and affects a wide range of geographies. Manufacturers therefore need to be able to shift their vaccine flows easily from one country to the next and from one hemisphere to the next; chasing the flu season as it crosses the globe.

The second major challenge relates to the nature of vaccines. Flu vaccines are made of inactive viruses which allow recipients’ immune systems to map the protein structure of various flus. This helps the immune system fight off flu viruses when and if a person is infected. Vaccines are, therefore, highly delicate biological substances and ones that must be treated with the upmost care and consideration.

 This is particularly true when it comes to managing the temperature of vaccine cargo. Flu vaccines must be kept at a constant 2 - 8°c if they are to remain effective and frozen or overheated batch renders them useless. Aside from the cost involved in ruining a batch, it can also cause major challenges for vaccination programmes. In the UK in 2012 for example, ruined batches led to shipments of vaccines being halted and was responsible for a shortage of supply at GP surgeries that year.

 This example illustrates another crucial consideration in efforts to deliver flu vaccines: the supply chain must be well-stocked ahead of vaccines actually being required. It is only by ensuring an adequate stock that governments and health organisations can protect against unforeseen issues and guarantee that all those who need the vaccine – mostly the young and the elderly – will be able to receive it.

 Crucially, flu vaccines are built by combining the most prevalent viruses seen over six months from the opposing hemisphere of the world (i.e. that hemisphere’s flu season). Manufacturers therefore need to be able to rapidly produce and distribute a large quantity of vaccines to a wide range of countries. Meeting the challenge of the flu season is, therefore, not only a temperature-sensitive and location-sensitive; it is also time-sensitive.

It is here that air cargo carriers play a crucial role in helping combat annual flu epidemics. The major benefit of air cargo in this respect is that it is the fastest way of transporting cargo over long distances, which makes it ideal for getting adequate stock of vaccine doses to where they are needed. The larger air cargo carriers have truly global networks that span the hemispheres in multiple places; enabling shippers to ‘chase’ the flu season effectively and efficiently.

 However, the size of the network alone is not sufficient for helping pharmaceutical companies get their vaccines to market. Carriers that work in this sector have to invest a great deal in infrastructure, people and processes to ensure they are capable of safely and reliably transporting this precious cargo.

 This is in part due to the proliferation of global regulations, which are being put in place to ensure air cargo carriers serving the pharmaceuticals industry have products and services that are fit for purpose. So important to human health is the ability to deliver vaccines to market in a condition where they are not only safe to use but also fully potent, the regulatory regime around air cargo pharmaceutical shipments is getting increasingly strict.

 Standards such as Good Distribution Practice are therefore working to ensure that only carriers with the right expertise and infrastructure are able to support pharmaceuticals shipments, particularly those in the temperature-sensitive category, such as flu vaccines. As a result, a new breed of quality-assured air cargo carrier has emerged, one that is capable of specialising in this complex market and proving the speed, expertise and flexibility shippers require.

 For example, shippers have at their disposal carriers who are able to store flu vaccines within the right temperature zone both on ground, in refrigerated holding bays; and in the air, in temperature-controlled containers. In recent years, the ability of some air cargo carriers to deliver temperature-controlled products has increased further with the introduction of next-generation aircraft into fleets. The latest models of aircraft, such as the B787 and A380, include hold air conditioning, which allows the carriers to set the hold temperature to within 1° accuracy.

Air carriers are also better able to address the time constraints of products such as flu vaccines better than other modes of transport. Minimising the amount of time flu vaccines spend in transit (and especially sitting on the hot tarmac) is an essential part in ensuring their integrity. The nature of air cargo transport means that carriers can keep flu vaccines in temperature-controlled zones until the last possible minute, only moving them to the aircraft when the plane is nearing its departure time. This flexibility is an essential element in ensuring that vaccines can get to healthcare providers quickly and in sufficient numbers.

When it comes to shipping vaccines to combat flu outbreaks shippers, healthcare organisations and patients need one thing above all else: confidence. They need to know that adequate levels of the right vaccine will get to countries well ahead of when they are needed and in a potent and stable condition. As we have seen, air cargo is increasingly proving to be a key link in the global logistics chain that combats flu viruses, providing the speed, temperature-control and flexibility needed to manage this complex yet vitally important supply chain.

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