Can General Aviation Do More for COVID Vaccine Distribution? [Webinar]

general aviation in the covid vaccine distribution system
Is General Aviation an underutilized resource in crisis response and management?

Tecnam Aircraft in partnership with renowned General Aviation (GA) organizations held a webinar on March 30 to discuss the industry’s role in COVID vaccine distribution.

The panel, moderated by Ian Seager, a journalist at Flyer UK, included the representatives of:

Watch the full webinar recording here:

To summarize the purpose of the webinar, and this article, we quote our Managing Director Giovanni Pascale Langer’s opening address:

“Since the pandemic hit us, we have seen that everyone was playing [their] role. Today, we want to say out loud that General Aviation is here to do the same.

We have the power to bring advantages and help where nobody else can.”

In this article, we will pull from the panelists’ insights to explore the areas of the COVID vaccine distribution system where GA can make the most impact, focusing on transportation and administration.

But first, some context:

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How Does the COVID Vaccine Distribution Work?

This is the outline of the US Department of Health and Human Services’ COVID vaccine distribution strategy:

Covid vaccine distribution strategy - US Dept of Health and Human Services
[Source: the US Department of Health and Human Services]
COVID vaccine distribution is complex and varies based on the vaccine type and regional factors.

Let’s looks at the distribution requirements for each vaccine:

Pfizer vaccines require a cold chain capable of preserving temperatures of -70°C±10° both during transportation and storage. Once thawed, there is a short window of time —approximately five days— for the vaccine to be administered before it loses its properties. [Source: Pfizer]

Moderna vaccines are comparatively easier to distribute, but not by too much. These need to be transported and stored in temperatures of -25°C to -10°C and can be kept refrigerated between 2 to 8°C for up to 30 days. [Source: Moderna]

As such, both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines need specialized storage units (ultra-freezers), a minimum number of handovers during transport and a highly efficient administration system to preserve the integrity of the product and to minimize waste.

Distributing other approved COVID vaccines is somewhat easier as these do not call for ultra-freezers:

  • AstraZeneca’s can be stored and transported in temperature conditions between 2°C to 8°C for at least six months [Source: AstraZeneka]
  • Johnson & Johnson’s has the same storage requirements, but no expiry date confirmed yet [Source: Janssen, March 26]
  • Sputnik’s was initially kept refrigerated at –18°C but is now confirmed to tolerate 2°C to 8°C for up to two months. Developers are working towards extending its lifespan to six months. [Source: TASS]

The common theme among all options is their limited lifespan outside manufacturers’ facilities. To maximize utilization, the vaccines require:

  • A distribution plan to answer the demand equitably
  • A transportation system capable of moving the vaccines to their destinations efficiently
  • An administration system capable of vaccinating the population according to the order of priority, safely and efficiently

Let’s look at each of these more closely:

Distribution Plan

As our moderator Ian Seager noted: “The pandemic doesn’t respect borders.”

Although ending the pandemic requires a collective, global effort, the vaccination strategies have been largely localized.

Most countries develop their distribution plans in collaboration with regional government organizations. Volumes and timelines are typically determined according to several factors:

  • Priority demographics (in most cases, frontline and other healthcare workers, senior citizens and other vulnerable groups, and so on)
  • Regional acceptance rate and uptake
  • Vaccine manufacturers’ guidelines in terms of storage and shelf life
  • Regional storage, administration and management infrastructure, including IT equipment for ordering and tracking

Describing the EU distribution system, GAMA’s Vice President of European Affairs Kyle Martin said:

“GAMA wrote to the European Commission and all the EU member states in early December effectively offering our services to help distribute vaccines. […A]nd their reply was quite clear that, whilst the commission procured the vaccines for all the EU member states, they were not in charge of distribution. […D]istribution was, therefore, left to each individual member state or, in some cases, down to different regions of that member state.”

According to MAF’s Disaster Response and International Development Expert Daniel Juzi, the COVID vaccine distribution system in countries across Africa and South Asia has also relied on local governance and health authorities.

Daniel added that in some of these countries, the military would take over the vaccine transportation.

Transportation System

A typical COVID vaccine transportation system relies on a diversified network of transportation methods. This system is particularly complex when it comes to delivering vaccines to remote areas.

For example, Doctors without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres – MSF) mapped out their transportation system in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This includes:

  • Large aircraft or cargo boats transporting shipments from the country of origin to the central delivery point in DRC
  • From the central warehouse equipped with refrigerators and power generators, cargo is further transported to regional hubs via trucks, vans or even cars
  • To reach the most remote and inaccessible areas, smaller cargo units are sometimes loaded onto motorbikes

The US transportation system is just as diversified. However, to reach remote areas, distributors mostly use small, single-engine airplanes.

More on this later in the article.

Vaccine Administration System

Vaccination sites vary greatly across the world.

The US Department of Health and Human Services lists the following:

covid vaccine administration sites - us dept of health and human services
[Source: the US Department of Health and Human Services]
Stadiums and town halls have typically been used as mass vaccination sites.

COVID Vaccine Distribution Challenges

Outlining how an average COVID vaccine distribution system works makes it easy to identify most of its challenges.

These include:

1. Cold Chain Requirements

As we’ve seen earlier, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require extreme temperature conditions to preserve the integrity of their formulae.

In his interview for the NC State University article, Dr. Robert Handfield Professor of Supply Chain Management highlights managing the last-mile delivery as one of the critical aspects of distributing Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

This refers to the vaccines’ journey as soon as they are taken out of the cold chain.

According to Dr. Handfield, five hours after leaving the ultra-freezer, these vaccines’ potency starts to decline. Therefore, supplying remote areas that are inaccessible to specialized trucks and that lack the storage infrastructure is a time-critical mission.

Not only is moving this fragile cargo difficult, but it is also costly mainly due to the equipment it requires.

2. Cargo Capacity

Another challenge associated with the cold chain requirements is the limited cargo capacity.

Very few freezers have the capacity to refrigerate below -20°C and very few transportation methods can accommodate those that do.

This is why transporting the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to remote areas — such as mountainside villages, small island communities and remote countryside — is particularly difficult.

3. The Reach & Speed of Delivery

In BBC’s depiction of MSF’s vaccine transportation system, the network can count as many as five phases and transportation methods, i.e., vaccine handovers.

When transporting vaccines to any region, other important factors to consider are the terrain and weather.

Reaching countryside areas can require travel via jungle or mountain roads, under monsoons or blizzards — conditions that can delay most trucks, cars and motorbikes, in their time-crital mission.

Adding to the logistical challenges, regional government strategies, particularly in the Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asian countries, could result in delivery delays.

As our panelist Daniel explained:

“Things are not gonna be moving as fast as in the West. Vaccines are gonna arrive, in some of these countries, particularly the red ones, only in the latter half of [20]22 and into [20]23.”

general aviation in covid vaccine distribution - maf map via the economist

In North America, however, reach and speed of delivery are no longer a challenge for local distributors.

According to RACCA President Stanley Bernstein the US’ supply chain stands in “contrast to MAF.”

“It’s a very sophisticated supply chain and very experienced, to say the least,” says Stanley, describing the distributors’ efforts across the country as “almost business as usual.”

4. Administration

Most of the administration sites listed in the US Department of Health and Human Services’ strategy are challenging to navigate when it comes to minimizing the risk of the virus transmission.

Among these are:

  • Hospitals
  • Public health clinics
  • And even stadiums and townhalls

These sites are characterized by narrow hallways which, if not monitored closely, make it difficult to maintain the social distancing recommendations of 2m.

5. Vaccine Acceptance & Uptake

Low vaccine acceptance rates could soon become a great challenge for the COVID vaccine distribution systems.

Senior Vice President of NATA Ryan Waguespack illustrated the challenge pulling from the organization’s experience:

“Let’s say you go into a community and you have 500 doses for 500 potential people, and only 400 show up. One of the challenges that [Federal Emergency Management Agency – FEMA] is facing when we were in discussions with them is that those remaining doses couldn’t be returned to the hub, and so they have to be thrown out.”

As manufacturers are rushing to fill their quotas, governments are struggling to increase the vaccine uptake. The discrepancy between fast-growing supplies and low demand due to vaccine hesitancy could result in waste.

Underutilization of General Aviation in National Crisis Response & Management

Our panelists nearly unanimously agreed that General Aviation has been underestimated and utilized in standardized crisis response and management.

As Kyle phrased it, most European governments do not see GA as a “useful logistical tool in their toolbox.”

According to Kyle, in EU, there is a lack of awareness of the advantages of using GA in crisis response. with most of the attention concentrated on a few transportation methods like helicopters. As such, there is plenty of untapped opportunity in the industry.

“GA really offers a significant advantage in terms of flexibility: Shorter field lengths, steeper approaches, smaller shipment size, lower cost.” – said Kyle.

Countries that MAF serves report similar challenges. Here is how Daniel described the obstacles to MAF’s operations:

“A challenge we have seen and already know that is out there is the local aviation regulators – the considerations that have to be made even for ourselves being based in some of these countries, flying under local AOCs and registrations there.

There is a considerable amount of hurdles that are out there.”

Editor in Chief at Future Aviation/Aerospace Workforce News Kathryn Creedy shared an example to illustrate how this “huge resource for helping people in disastrous situations [goes] to waste.”

Devastated by hurricanes Irma and Maria, the government and health authorities of St. Martin received a prompt offer of support by a private aviation operator. The company’s CEO volunteered her helicopters for evacuation and supply transportation.

“They had no idea what to do with her,” said Kathryn, concluding that:

“General Aviation has always risen to the occasion when it comes to natural disasters.

It was instrumental in keeping the Caribbean working and delivering during Irma and Maria, keeping those islands supplied as well as evacuation. It was instrumental in Haiti earthquake. It’s been instrumental in this occasion.

General Aviation is underestimated in its role that it can take on in disaster and health situations such as we’re facing now.”

How General Aviation Contributes to COVID Vaccine Distribution

While most COVID vaccine distribution systems resemble each other with very few distinct outliers, no two are completely the same.

For this reason, in our webinar, we focused on two main questions:

  • Inspiration: How have the members of GA, from airports and the large aircraft to organizations and small manufacturers, contributed to the distribution systems so far?
  • Ideation: What areas or capabilities of GA have been left untapped? What else can the industry do to support this system and empower the efficient and equitable vaccine delivery?

In this section of the article, we will explore the first question, focusing on:

  • Small aircraft
  • Large airlines
  • Airports

How Have Small Aircraft Contributed to the Vaccine Delivery So Far?

NATA’s Senior Vice President Ryan Waguespack opened our discussion on the role of small aircraft in COVID vaccine distribution. His focus was the industry’s contribution to the US veteran and remote communities, and even reducing waste.

As we have seen so far, once taken out of the cold chain, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines must be used in a very limited timeframe.

Describing the challenge of minimizing the likelihood of leftover vaccines, Ryan explained how small aircraft were able to transport the remaining doses to other vaccination sites in a “quick 10-15min flight,” thus reducing waste.

Small aircraft were also instrumental in supplying the remote communities quickly and efficiently.

NATA - general aviation, small aircraft supplying COVID vaccines to Veterans
[Source: Stars And Stripes]
Over 55% of the US veteran population is 65 or older, making them a vulnerable demographic. According to the same source, over 4.7 million US veterans live in rural and highly rural areas and 26% do not have internet access at home.

Regardless of the hurdles, many local communities have stepped up to the challenge and managed to supply their veteran communities with vaccines largely thanks to small aircraft.

Small charter planes and twin-engine jets have carried anywhere from 200 to 550 vaccine doses in dozens of Moderna vials to these rural and highly rural areas, as reported by Stars and Stripes and Time.

In doing so, the local communities have procured not only the vaccines, but also the healthcare staff and administrators, transporting them quickly and efficiently to the makeshift vaccination sites.

NATA - One plane, one island, 50 vaccines_hero
[Source: Bridge Michigan]
Another example Ryan shared focused on delivering the vaccines to the remote communities in the US, particularly small islands in Michigan and “across difficult, frigid terrain — often in remote slivers of [Alaska]” as Washington Post described it.

Bridge Michigan covered the first vaccine deliveries to the Bois Blanc Island in Michigan. With no ice bridges or conditions for boat transportation this time of year (March), hiring small planes was the only way in and out of the island.

Two single-engine planes delivered 50 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccines along with a staff of public health workers to inoculate 47 senior residents who have signed up for vaccination (total island population: 70+).

Many of these residents had quarantined on the island for nearly a year, away from their family and friends. The ability to fly the life-saving doses even at the time when the island is inaccessible has brought great relief to the Bois Blanc Island residents, the paper writes.

NATA - small aircraft distributing covid vaccines in Alaska
[Source: Washington Post]
In February, the Washington Post published a vivid account of the vaccine distribution efforts in Alaska. Dispersed pockets of inhabited areas, rough terrains and freezing cold are just a few of the obstacles the Alaskan health workers have had to navigate.

Once again, small 6 to 10-seater aircraft were instrumental in moving the vaccines and health workers to their destinations which sometimes counted as few as 30 people or even one multi-family household.

Tecnam Aircraft Leverages Decades of Know-How, Advanced Tech & DESMON Partnership to Build One of the Most Efficient COVID Vaccine Transportation Platforms Yet

Earlier this year, we announced our own contribution to the fight for a COVID-free world: Tecnam P2012 TRAVELCARE.

We partnered with the ultra-freezer manufacturer Desmon to reconfigure our P2012 Traveller aircraft into the vaccine transportation platform capable of carrying 115,000 doses of even the most fragile formulae like Pfizer’s to even the most remote of areas.

The aircraft is certified to fly in the most demanding weather conditions and can land on runways as short as 565m (1,850ft) paved or unpaved. As such, this transportation system minimizes the number of handovers, minimizes risk and reduces cost to less than €0,005 per vial, per flight hour.

Here is how P2012 TRAVELCARE empowers efficient and equitable COVID vaccine delivery.

“I think that TRAVELCARE is a great example of […] when you combine a responsive company with a great airframe, you can flexibly change its role really quickly and really effectively, so well done for that, Tecnam,” said Ian.

How Have Large Airlines Contributed to the Vaccine Delivery So Far?

Our panelists from RACCA have provided an overview of the large airlines and their contribution to vaccine distribution.

As reported by Aviation Week, SkyTeam Cargo has created the V EXCELLENCE program for vaccine shipments. The program includes cargo airlines and harnesses “years of combined experience in shipping pharmaceuticals” to transport millions of doses worldwide.

Besides transporting the actual vaccines, the airlines have been instrumental in moving the active ingredients to the vaccine manufacturing sites.

How Have Airports Contributed to the Vaccine Delivery So Far?

Airports have played an important role in the distribution system in several regions.

In our preparation for the webinar, NATA and RACCA panelists offered several examples of airports being converted into vaccination sites across the US — most notably, DuPage Airport in Illinois.

NATA and RACCA - west chicago airport serving as vaccination site
[Source: City of West Chicago]
DuPage Airport was used as a popup vaccination site to administer approximately 2,000 Pfizer vaccines to eligible residents.

Pictured above, the airport provided ample space for social distancing, storage and health workers to operate in.

Another example of airports-turned-vaccination sites is the Arlington Municipal Airport in Washington State. The airport allocated one of its unused runways to operate “as long as doses are available,” according to Stanwood Camano News.

General Aviation for a COVID-Free World & Beyond

The second question the webinar sought to answer is: Can GA do more for COVID vaccine distribution?

We have seen that each region is looking for ways to optimize their delivery system and navigate challenges. GA has already played an important role in this process and sharing these examples can inspire solutions worldwide, including:

  • Using small aircraft to transport the vaccines to remote areas, minimizing the number of handovers, reducing risk and minimizing waste
  • Inspiring small aircraft manufacturers to employ their resources and know-how for the purpose of efficient and equitable vaccine delivery
  • Large cargo airlines alliances to optimize the entire supply chain, from transporting ingredients to transporting millions of doses across the world
  • Repurposing small airports or unused large airport runways into safe vaccination sites
  • And even using 10-seater planes as mobile vaccination sites

The Future of COVID Vaccine Distribution

Ian opened the Q&A portion of the webinar citing the possibility of the COVID vaccine becoming an annual booster rather than a one-time inoculation dose.

His question to the panelists was how they see General Aviation’s role in this scenario.

“We are everywhere. We are present in all countries. We have airfields closer than most of the average public would appreciate,” said Kyle

Even if the vaccine developers succeed in prolonging their products’ shelf lives and reducing the need for cold chains, General Aviation will remain an effective method of transportation capable of

  • Reaching remote and inaccessible areas
  • Delivering help quickly and effectively
  • Reducing cost when transporting large quantities
  • Reducing waste thanks to quick redistribution of excess supplies

“Formalizing” the Use of GA as a Tool in Crisis Response & Management

The panelists highlighted the need to formalize the role of GA in crisis response and management on national and regional levels.

“[W]e need to formalize that participation so that in the future if disasters happen or we have pandemics — which, in all probability we will […] — we can get those people moving in a much more formal manner so that the government authorities, health authorities, know that this is a resource that they have, and that the General Aviation community will report before they even ask. They are ready and willing to serve,” said Kathryn.

One of the ways to do so, as Daniel suggested, was to leverage the existing networks within government and healthcare authorities.

“Yet not forgetting, we have to have the regulator –or regulators- on board,” said Daniel.

According to Ryan, NATA is already proactively doing so by raising awareness and educating regulators and the public on the real potential of GA.

Our Chief Sales Officer Walter Da Costa invited the public to also recognize the power of GA’s network itself, inviting the panelists, the industry and the media to “[put] our strengths together” to optimize the use of GA in future crisis.

Proactive Individual & Joint Action

The next steps?

“We need to let everyone understand that we can do better, we can do more,” said our Managing Director Giovani.

At Tecnam, we remain proactive and open to furthering our contribution to the COVID vaccine distribution efforts and beyond. As Giovanni concluded, “Tecnam is more than willing to invest even more in this subject.”

The webinar we hosted is just one of the first steps towards increasing GA’s role in crisis response and management worldwide.

To make an impact will require continuous, joint action. We hope the world will recognize the immense benefits our industry can offer and accept our helping hand that is more than willing and ready to contribute.

“The benefits [of GA] are numerous and that’s why GAMA is very proud to support the work that Tecnam’s doing here today and really showcasing the benefits that our industry can offer the world.” – said Kyle

Questions? Contact us!

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