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If 20 billion doses of totally safe and effective ‘one time’ COVID vaccine was created today, how long do you think it would be before you and your loved ones were able to get it? Spoiler: it’s much, much longer than you think.

If/when a COVID vaccine is created, cleared, and mass-produced, freight carriers plan to deliver up to 20 billion doses in a rush that could come in the midst of a peak-season challenging already strained expedited shipping networks.

What Would You Do With 8,000 747s?

Cargo flights are already filling up beyond February 2021, with bookings for consumer electronics, apparel, and (super sexy) industrial parts through the holiday season and New Year. We’re talking Apple’s delayed iPhone 5G, Sony’s PlayStation 5, and H&M’s newest range of potentially acceptable clothing ruined with weird glittery slogans like, ‘#livingmybestlife’ or ‘I deserved this,’ and overly embroidered jeans pockets.

Airlines say they will continue to make room for essential medical supplies and PPE. The International Air Transportation estimates that transporting doses to the global population would require the equivalent of 8,000 fully-laden 747 freighters. Some carriers peg demand at 15,000 flights. These estimates only cover a ‘one-time’ dose vaccination. They also don’t include space needed for other supplies like syringes and protective equipment.

So You’re Telling Me My New iPhone Isn’t Essential?

Distributing 20 billion doses is a logistical nightmare the air cargo industry is just going to have to deal with. But without knowing how many doses they will actually need to ship, where they will be made, and how they will need to be stored during transit, there is only so much that carriers can figure out ahead of time.

Complicating matters reduces cargo-hold freight capacity on passenger airliners as airlines cut routes and frequencies, increased demand for shipping from people working from home while also avoiding non-essential trips. All of this is on top of the coming peak shipping season that runs from fall to February.

Storage requirements for a vaccine also make freeing up last-minute space harder than for other supplies. Most of the vaccine candidates in development must be kept refrigerated or frozen in some cases, at temperatures as low as -70 degrees Celsius. Cargo carriers are adding new infrastructure, such as “freezer farms” at airport hubs and temperature monitoring systems, but temperature control has always been challenging when shipping vaccines.


You might be wondering why people are so obsessed with delivering a COVID vaccine to the world when we haven’t even developed one yet. Here’s another way of looking at it.

Let’s say a pizza shop decided they would start delivering pizzas and just started taking orders. As the dough is tossed in the air and sauce and cheese are slathered on, a staff worker may ask, ‘Hey, how are we actually getting this pizza to the customer?

If the manager responds, ‘look, we’ll figure that part out when we have their pizza ready,’ you know that pizza will be cold when it gets there, if it gets there.

Cold pizza is one thing, a vaccine that hasn’t been stored and shipped properly is much, much worse.

A Positive COVID Legacy?

WHO estimates more than a quarter of all vaccines are wasted every year due to temperature control and logistics failure, AKA: a broken cold-chain. Broken cold-chains result in more than 1.5 million deaths to vaccine-preventable diseases every year.

No one knows if a COVID-19 vaccine will be a one-time dose or require an annual (or more frequent) vaccination. What it could be is the foundation of a global emergency logistic system. We’re about eight months into the 12-18 month window to engineer an efficient, equitable delivery system to provide a COVID-19 vaccine to most of the global population. To succeed, billions, including people in dispersed rural communities, must be vaccinated within a short span of time.

Not only will this save lives, but the economies and continuous operation of nations.

We will see an increase in natural disasters and epidemics. A long-term contingency framework of established delivery logistics for medicine that is cost-effective and responsive to different levels of challenge – be it natural disasters, regional epidemics, or national pandemics – is essential. As a positive legacy, can we finally have an established vaccine delivery system to meet day to day demand across the globe?


It’s a subject that won’t go away. Teams all over the world are working their fingers to the bone in hopes of discovering a COVID vaccine. As they do this, industry minds are trying to figure out a plan to distribute that vaccine when it is ready. It’s a good thing people are talking about the logistics and hurdles that must be cleared in order to deliver a potentially world-altering vaccine to billions.

If you have concerns or questions on how this could affect your shipping plans, please reach out to our expert team. We are happy and ready to help.