Operation Covid Vaccine: Indian aviation sector fully geared up for mammoth mission

The sector had earlier played a stellar role in the Lifeline Udan programme to distribute essential cargo to the remotest parts of India

Operation Covid Vaccine: Indian aviation sector fully geared up for mammoth mission
A Blue Dart plane during Lifeline Udan mission. Image courtesy: Lifeline Udan

After showing their commitment and valour by bringing home lakhs of Indians stuck across the globe during the outbreak of coronavirus, the aviation sector is gearing up for a new mission. This time, the task is even more crucial as it is about saving the lives of millions. Airlines, airports and other supporting services are readying their infrastructure to transport, store and supply the Covid-19 vaccine, which the world has been waiting for for a year.

Special flights, temperature-controlled zones, cool dollies and other temperature and storage-related equipment and features are being prepared for the mammoth task.

According to aviation experts, looking at the demand in India and its geographical conditions, airlines and air cargo operators will have to run multiple flights in a short time span to transport the vaccines.

According to a white paper on vaccine transportation prepared by DHL and Mckinsey, in the next two years, nearly 15,000 flights would be needed for global coverage of Covid-19 vaccination. Temperature requirements remain the main challenge in this effort under the existing medical supply chain.

Cargo loaded onto a plane as part of the Lifeline Udan mission. Image courtesy: Lifeline Udan

To execute the task, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has constituted a Vaccine Task Force (VTF), which will lay down the principles for emergency use authorisation while the National Expert Group On Vaccine Administration for Covid-19 (NEGVAC) should take the lead in setting the principles for advance market commitment, including vaccine pricing.

Also read -- India's war on Covid-19: How Lifeline Udan proved critical for success of lockdown

The government is in constant touch with the leading pharma giants to ensure the country gets the medicine first. Sources said the Centre is in contact with Moderna, Pfizer, Serum Institute of India, Bharat Biotech and Zydus Cadila over the progress of clinical trials of each of the vaccine candidates.

The trickiest part about the transportation of vaccine is maintaining the storage temperature. Experts believe that some of the vaccines may require super-cold storages in the range of -70°C, which may not be easy to handle for the existing cold chain setups that India has.  

Experts have pointed out, vaccines like those of Pfizer and Moderna need to be stored at -70°C and 20°C respectively. Their distribution will be challenging in India for such storage facilities are scant in the country.

Indeed different vaccine types have different temperature requirements. The Indian aviation sector, however, claims that they are ready to face all the challenges.

Health experts told Plane Vanilla that vaccines developed by the Indian companies are expected to have a storage temperature requirement of 2-8°C. The current aviation infrastructure is equipped to handle products in this temperature range.

An official of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport (CSMIA) said that the airport will provide flexible slots for ad hoc freighter operations for the transportation of Covid-19 vaccines.

Also read: Vande Bharat, Air Bubbles, Lifeline Udan reinforce Air India's legacy despite barbs

Officials at the Airports Authority of India (AAI) are also preparing a blueprint of flight operations to manage the mammoth task. Apart from cargo carriers, major airlines like IndiGo, Spicejet and Air India may be part of the plan to ship Covid-19 vaccines across India.

Officials of the Mumbai and Delhi airports said that they have the provision to provide round-the-clock green channels with dedicated truck docks, X-ray machines, ULDs (unit load devices) and build-up workstations. Key account managers will be deployed for round-the-clock monitoring of vaccine operations.

Pharma giant Pfizer has been one of the companies preparing the Covid-19 vaccine. Image courtesy: Pfizer

Talking about vaccine transportation, a spokesperson of air cargo operator Blue Dart -- which has six Boeing 757 freighter aircraft in its fleet -- told PTI that the company's air capability has various scalability options including charters as well as variable timing options.

Terming the transportation of coronavirus vaccines as a “massive undertaking” a senior official of another air cargo operator in India said it is going to be one of the biggest cargo transportation tasks, especially for a country like India which has a big population and geographical diversity. He said his company is readying to operate “multiple flights in a short time span” whenever the demand arises.

IndiGo, when asked about vaccine transportation planning, told PTI, "In line with our business model and cost leadership strategy, we are happy to evaluate the shipment of the Covid-19 vaccines on board our aircraft and will promise to contribute to the best of our abilities."

IndiGo has, amid the pandemic, deployed 10 of its passenger aircraft for cargo operations only.

An Air India spokesperson said that the airline "is hoping and would definitely be a part of any plan of 'bringing the vaccine' as well as transport it within the country."

Budget carrier Spicejet’s cargo arm, SpiceXpress, has tied up with global cold chain solution providers to perform seamless cold chain operations and offers cargo shipment with a controlled ambient temperature between 25°C to -40°C.

Delhi's Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) has two cargo terminals with capacity to handle over 1.5 lakh million tonnes per annum. These zones are temperature-controlled with separate cool chambers ranging from 25°C to -20°C, which would be extremely conducive for the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.

Besides, there are cool dollies at the airside that ensure an unbroken cool chain during temperature-sensitive cargo movement between the terminal and aircraft.

The GMR-owned Hyderabad airport said the terminal is equipped with various temperature zones ranging from -20°C to 25°C with state-of-the-art equipment and cool containers to cater to product-specific requirements.

The Indian aviation sector had earlier played a crucial part in the fight against Covid-19 in the form of the Lifeline Udan mission that was launched at the start of the nationwide lockdown in March. National carrier Air India, its wholly-owned subsidiary Alliance Air, Pawan Hans, Blue Dart, private carriers like IndiGo, Spicejet and Vistara, and the Indian Air Force (IAF) transported essential cargo to the remotest corners of the country directly as part of the mission, or as a mode of support.  

The cargo included Covid-19-related reagents, enzymes, medical equipment, personal protective equipment (PPE), testing kits, gloves, masks, other materials of HLL and Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and cargo requisitioned by state governments and Union Territories, postal packets and so on.

Emphasis was placed on the Northeast, islands and hill states, with Air India and the Indian Air Force (IAF) collaborating mainly for transporting supplies to Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh, Northeast and island regions. The Lifeline Udan mission extended its reach outside India's borders too.