SINGAPORE: Singapore can play a critical role in distributing vaccines to the region as an air cargo hub, said the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) and Changi Airport Group (CAG) on Tuesday (Dec 8).
“Over the years, Changi Airport has built a strong track record in pharmaceutical handling by air, from serving Singapore’s pharmaceutical manufacturing sector. We have good cold chain handling infrastructure and capabilities,” said Mr Ho Yuen Sang, CAAS director of aviation industry.
“We are able to handle not only vaccine shipments to Singapore for our own needs, but also transshipments to Singapore for distribution to the rest of the region.”
Mr Ho said that SIA has more than 200 passenger aircraft to deploy and can deliver vaccines to “multiple destinations according to demand”.
Singapore can distribute vaccines to areas where the infrastructure to handle large volumes of vaccines is limited, which would require more frequent deliveries in smaller volumes, he added at a press briefing at Changi Airport on Tuesday.
On Saturday, Singapore Airlines (SIA) said that it would prioritise cargo capacity to transport COVID-19 vaccines when they become available. The airline added that it would prepare seven Boeing 747-400 freighters and deploy passenger planes where needed.
As of Dec 1, the number of weekly cargo flights at Changi Airport has tripled to more than 950 compared to end-2019, and the airport is connected to about 80 cities by weekly cargo flights, said CAAS and CAG.
SIA now operates multiple weekly flights to key European pharmaceutical export hubs, such as Amsterdam, Brussels and Frankfurt.
FROZEN, DEEP-FROZEN STORAGE
The airport authority highlighted that the airport’s cargo handlers, dnata and SATS, have been investing in cold chain infrastructure and equipment over the years to support transportation of temperature-controlled cargo.
dnata’s CoolChain and SATS’ Coolport warehouses with adjustable temperature ranges of between -25 deg Celsius and 25 deg Celsius cover more than 9,000 sq m.
“We’ve been preparing for this for over seven years, we have been handling vaccines for an awful long time - these are not the first vaccines to reach Singapore’s shores,” said Mr Sam Gould, head of cargo for dnata Singapore.
“Probably the biggest struggle that we’ve had is that there is going to be much stronger demand.”
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Vaccines require cold chain transportation as some of them need to be kept at specific temperatures. It ensures that the vaccines will remain unspoilt as they get from where they are being manufactured to where they will be administered - hospitals and clinics.
Britain on Tuesday became the first country to roll out the Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which needs to be kept at -70 degrees Celsius and lasts only five days in a regular fridge.
Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine needs to be transported and stored at -20 degrees Celsius and has a shelf-life of six months. AstraZeneca's vaccine can be stored at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius.
Mr Gould explained at the press conference that Singapore can handle vaccines that need temperatures of -70 degrees as they will come in special packaging that can help maintain that temperature.
Vaccines only need to be kept at that temperature for long-term storage, not transit.
“The internal packaging in these boxes will do that for us - the colder we keep it, the longer it will last,” he said.
Both dnata and SATS have also recently introduced cool dollies - temperature-controlled containers to be transported with temperature control on the tarmac - from the warehouse to the aircraft.
"The amount of time that it takes once you get a vaccine off an aircraft, to get that into the correct temperature is now a matter of minutes," said Mr Gould.
Handling vaccines that must be stored in a frozen or deep-frozen state may require dry ice, which the cargo handlers have facilities to produce and trained personnel to handle.
“In addition to purchasing electric cool dollies and expanding our in-house dry ice production capacity to 4.5 tonnes per day, we have increased our charging points to accommodate more active temperature-controlled containers on site.
"SATS Coolport is also equipped with a round-the-clock smart temperature monitoring system,” said Mr Nazri Othman, SATS senior vice president of cargo services.
To prepare the industry for the vaccine delivery, the Changi Ready Taskforce was formed in October to identify and address potential challenges of transporting COVID-19 vaccines by air. It comprises 18 members from government agencies, airlines, cargo handlers and freight forwarders.
Mr Lim Ching Kiat, CAG managing director of air hub development said that while cargo shipments are not big revenue earners for the airport, there are strategic and humanitarian reasons for prioritising COVID-19 vaccine shipments.
“Especially for vaccine distribution, there’s a very clear humanitarian reason where we want to make this process as efficient as possible so that vaccines can be transported safely,” said Mr Lim, the co-lead of the Changi Ready Taskforce.
“COVID has also disrupted Changi Airport’s flights quite significantly, so the key to traffic recovery also comes in terms of widespread vaccine (distribution) … As an air hub community, we are ready to carry the air cargo for the COVID-19 vaccines.”