SIA gears up to transport and deliver Covid-19 vaccines

Singapore has intensified preparations to transport, store and distribute Covid-19 vaccines. Singapore Airlines said it would prioritise the shipment of Covid-19 vaccines above other cargo once these become available.

SINGAPORE - Singapore has intensified preparations to transport, store and distribute Covid-19 vaccines, while securing a supply of vaccine doses for the country.

National carrier Singapore Airlines (SIA) said on Saturday (Dec 5) it would prioritise the shipment of Covid-19 vaccines above other cargo once these become available.

At a media event, SIA senior vice-president of cargo Chin Yau Seng said: "We have been working hard to ensure that we are ready for one of the biggest and most important supply chain challenges of our generation - the transportation and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines around the world."

Ground handlers Sats and dnata told The Straits Times they are laying the groundwork to increase their cool storage capabilities to handle high volumes of vaccines.

Singapore's aviation regulator and airport operator have also established a task force of key air cargo industry members to tackle the challenges of safely transporting Covid-19 vaccines, some of which - like the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine - must be stored at ultra-low temperatures until a few days before they are used.

The moves come with two leading vaccine candidates now waiting for broader regulatory approval after successful trials.

Last week, Britain became the first Western country to authorise a vaccine for general use against Covid-19, which has killed more than 1.5 million people worldwide, while Russia is opening clinics in Moscow to begin mass vaccinations with its own vaccine, Sputnik V.

SIA said on Saturday it will deploy its seven Boeing 747-400 freighter planes to transport vaccines, and activate passenger aircraft to boost shipping capacity if needed.

Mr Chin said: "We can roughly take about eight million doses of a normal vaccine (on a cargo plane), but for some of the ones that require a lot more dry ice... we will probably be able to carry less, maybe four million or so."


Pharmaceuticals covered by a thermal blanket to maintain low temperatures are loaded onto an SIA aircraft bound for Sydney on Dec 5, 2020. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

SIA will conduct test flights to trial vaccine transportation soon, similar to what airlines in Belgium and the United States are doing.

Said Mr Chin: "We have been in talks with some of the vaccine manufacturers and they are open to the idea. We are working out the details of the trials, so you can expect that in time."

SIA has also signed agreements with cold chain container providers to ensure it has sufficient temperature-controlled containers to transport Covid-19 vaccines. A cold chain refers to the process in which a temperature-sensitive product is kept at a desired low-temperature range along its entire supply chain.

Sats, which helps maintain the cold chain when it unloads cargo from planes and hands it over to distributors, said it is looking to add refrigerated trucks or temperature-controlled containers on site to boost capacity, and has increased charging points in anticipation.

Sats already has an 8,000 sq m facility - slightly larger than a football field - which handles 250,000 tonnes of perishable and pharmaceutical air freight annually.

Meanwhile, dnata, which operates a 1,400 sq m pharma and perishable handling centre, may install additional onsite cool storage containers that will double its capacity by early next year.

Asked whether Singapore is upgrading its capabilities to store and transport Covid-19 vaccines domestically, the Ministry of Health (MOH) said the Republic is equipped with the necessary infrastructure and capabilities to handle vaccines via the cold chain.

Its spokesman said: "MOH has been in discussion with the various pharmaceutical companies on their Covid-19 vaccine candidates and cold chain requirements. We will continue to regularly review the situation and make adjustments as needed."