With the shipping industry in turmoil the world over due to lack of transport capacity, reduced flights, congested ports and soaring freight costs, the competition for air and sea cargo is at an all-time high. Meanwhile, UNICEF – as a key delivery partner for COVAX* – is rolling out the largest vaccine supply operation in history, navigating a complex web of logistics to ensure deliveries reach their destination on time. UNICEF has received a vital boost from the Abu Dhabi based HOPE Consortium to transport life-saving supplies to countries battling the COVID-19 pandemic as part of a major in-kind contribution to COVAX announced by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) earlier this year.  

The first flight facilitated by the HOPE Consortium from China to Belgium touched down in Liege Airport, on 7 October 2021 carrying 65 ultra-cold chain freezers for vaccine storage, 60,000 syringes and 1,300 safety boxes. This equipment will be transported onwards to 21 African countries, from Burkina Faso to Sudan, Zambia to São Tomé and Príncipe – many are difficult to reach locations, particularly with air travel disruption due to COVID-19 and the nature of the goods being delivered. Scaling up ultra-cold chain capacity is especially important as African countries prepare to receive COVID-19 vaccines through COVAX, requiring storage at - 70 degrees Celsius.

The HOPE Consortium is a public-private partnership consisting of the Department of Health - Abu Dhabi, Abu Dhabi Ports, Etihad Cargo, Rafed, Maqta Gateway and SkyCell, which provides COVID-19 vaccine storage and delivery services out of their hub in Abu Dhabi. The partnership provides transport, storage, handling, sourcing, and global distribution services (via its collaboration with leading logistical companies), offering UNICEF and COVAX additional logistics capacity during a time of great need.

UNICEF/Liege Airport/Belgium/2021
UNICEF/Liege Airport/Belgium/2021
The first flight facilitated by the United Arab Emirates’ HOPE Consortium touches down in Liege Airport as part of a new agreement with UNICEF to provide logistics support to transport essential COVAX supplies to countries battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Shipping COVAX supplies during a global crisis

“In my 21 years working for UNICEF, I have never seen the kind of pressure on shipping and transport industries that we are experiencing right now. To combat the pandemic, we are moving large volumes of bulky equipment, at a time when cargo space is at a premium. This contribution from UAE and the HOPE Consortium comes at a crucial time,” said Jean-Cedric Meeus, Chief of Transport, UNICEF Supply Division.  

Ultra-cold freezers measure two and a half metres in height and one metre in width, making them too large to transport on regular commercial passenger flights. Cargo planes are the only option.

“In addition to the large size, we also faced the challenge of reducing gas within the ultra-cold freezers to make them suitable to ship by air. We worked with the manufacturer to reduce the gas levels and re-gas the freezers at the destinations. These are the minute but critical details that determine what, when and how we can ship, and importantly, the cost of shipping in a highly constrained market,” adds Jean-Cedric Meeus.  

Each day there are new challenges. UNICEF’s transport and logistics teams are working to overcome possibilities of new export bans that could impact the movement of essential components for COVID-19 vaccination campaigns like syringes, personal protective equipment and ultra-cold chain units. Therefore, supplies must be shipped as soon as they become available from manufacturers to avoid disruption to vaccination plans.

At the same time, vaccine shipment schedules frequently change, flights may be cancelled, or countries may not accept allocation offers for various reasons, and so the shipping schedules for vaccines and related supplies change in real-time, with new routes and transport negotiations required - all within a volatile market and escalating transport costs. 

“We need to move at incredible speed to ship supplies. Accessing the HOPE Consortium’s global shipping and logistics network, to complement UNICEF shipping capacity, gives us the agility and flexibility we need to support countries on the frontline. This is the kind of collaboration and network we need, if we are to make urgent progress against the pandemic now,” said Jean-Cedric Meeus.

The UAE is expanding its support to COVAX, capitalizing on its vast logistics network, to help ensure countries have equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines and auxiliary supplies.

“The recent disruption to international shipping has compounded the existing pressures on the global COVID-19 response. Abu Dhabi and the HOPE Consortium are both well-positioned and committed to help the global community achieve mass and equitable vaccine availability. As part of this commitment, we are pleased to work with our partners at UNICEF to leverage the HOPE Consortium’s significant transport and logistics capabilities to bring hope and support infrastructure to all those in need. The delivery of these vital freezers will ensure that every vaccine delivered can make a difference in our collective battle against the pandemic,” said Captain Mohamed Juma Al Shamisi, Chairman of the Executive Committee, HOPE Consortium, and Group CEO, AD Ports Group.

UNICEF/Liege Airport/Belgium/2021
UNICEF/Liege Airport/Belgium/2021
The shipment of 65 ultra-low temperature freezers arrives in Liege Airport on a HOPE Consortium facilitated flight from China to Belgium, for onward shipment to 21 African countries. UNICEF is procuring and delivering ultra-cold chain equipment and other auxiliary supplies on behalf of COVAX to support countries in their COVID-19 response.

Expanding shipping routes to Africa

The HOPE Consortium’s first delivery supporting COVAX transits through Liege Airport in Belgium, another strategic partner for UNICEF that facilitates supplies management.  

“From Liege Airport, we are planning deliveries with HOPE Consortium’s airline partners and our regular freight forwarders through established routes to Africa combined with charter flights to multiple destinations in one go. This partnership helps us expand our shipping routes, delivery capacity and timelines, which we hope will bolster Africa’s COVID-19 vaccination drive. This is both an African priority and a global priority as we aim to balance the scales on vaccine equity,” said Jean-Cedric Meeus.

The challenges are extraordinary but so too is the collaboration UNICEF is receiving from donors and both new and existing partners.  

“Although the focus on COVID-19 vaccine doses is paramount, equally important are the ancillary supplies that make vaccine roll-out possible, and the transport of this critical cargo. The HOPE Consortium is broadening shipping options for UNICEF to deliver COVAX supplies to countries. Together, we can overcome supply chain challenges and find solutions to seemingly impossible scenarios,” said Etleva Kadilli, Director, UNICEF Supply Division.

* COVAX is the vaccines pillar of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator - a ground-breaking global collaboration to accelerate the development, production, and equitable access to COVID-19 tests, treatments, and vaccines for every country in the world. COVAX is co-led by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI)Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the World Health Organization (WHO), alongside key delivery partner UNICEF. 

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This article was first published by UNICEF Supply Division on 7 October 2021.

TOPICS: COVID-19COVAX

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