United Nations humanitarian relief agency Unicef is looking to recruit some of the airline industry’s biggest operators to help distribute a coronavirus vaccine to the world’s poorest nations.

Unicef held a call with about 40 carriers to make plans for the global airlift and to identify what commercial tasks each party can perform, according to Glyn Hughes, head of cargo at the International Air Transport Association, which helped arrange the meeting.

Unicef, already the No. 1 buyer of vaccines, is leading efforts to purchase and distribute covid shots to 92 states with funds from the GAVI immunization program, which brings together governments, the World Health Organization and World Bank. Another 80 higher-income countries have chosen it to procure inoculations they will buy, extending the plan to 70% of the population.

The summons to airlines was triggered by positive late-stage trial results reported by Pfizer and Moderna on two separate vaccines, Hughes said in an interview. Neither has yet been approved for use, but attention is turning toward how a successful shot can be distributed, especially to less well off countries without the resources for mass purchases.

About 30 of the largest cargo airlines were invited to participate in Monday’s call, Hughes said. They included express-delivery specialists such as FedEx and United Parcel Service and dedicated freighter operators like Cargolux Airlines International.

Airline groups with large cargo divisions including Deutsche Lufthansa also took part, alongside passenger carriers with experience in moving specialist goods like Virgin Atlantic Airways. Other participants were regional carriers from Africa, Latin America and Southeast Asia, where work will largely focus.


Initial efforts will provide jabs for about 20% of local populations, beginning with medical staff and other key groups, most likely using vaccines with less-demanding temperature requirements, Hughes said. In normal times, Unicef provides aid to children and supplies more than 2 billion inoculations a year, which in 2019 had a value of almost $1.7 billion.

Garuda Indonesia has separately been certified to transport vaccines within the country, it said in a statement. With more than 410,000 confirmed virus cases so far, Indonesia has suffered the biggest outbreak in Southeast Asia and presents one of the toughest logistical challenges, with a population of 270 million spread across the world’s largest archipelago.

IATA estimates that the equivalent of 8,000 110-ton capacity Boeing Co. 747 cargo planes will be needed for the global vaccine airlift.

The industry has about 2,000 dedicated freighters which usually carry about half of all goods moved by air, while 2,500 passenger planes are currently operating in cargo-only roles. That still leaves a huge shortfall that can only be filled through the opening up of more routes by governments, Hughes said.

While freighter operators are currently in their busy pre-Christmas season carrying stock for retailers, Hughes said it’s vital planes are kept ready going into next year at a time when some might otherwise be parked.

“The last thing we want is for aircraft to be put back into the desert,” he said.