5 steps to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine distribution

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Carlos Grau Tanner, Director-General, Global Express Association & Sean Doherty, Head, International Trade and Investment, World Economic Forum


  • As COVID-19 vaccines become available, the question becomes how to distribute them around the world.
  • The Global Express Association proposes key steps governments must take to ensure timely, safe vaccine distribution.
  • They include ensuring product integrity and avoiding bottlenecks at borders.

COVID-19 vaccines should be quickly and safely distributed world-wide when they become available. Express delivery carriers have been working through the logistics and making plans based on their experience with medical shipments.

Here are five things governments need to think about to support vaccine distribution.

1. Make product integrity a top priority.

There should be absolutely no confusion about what’s in a vaccine shipment.

The World Health Organization (WHO) should publish an official list of all approved vaccines with universal product IDs, while the World Customs Organization (WCO) should provide a standard classification (HS-6) for COVID-19 vaccines. Manufacturing countries should issue classification rulings for vaccine products in advance, for other countries to recognize.

To prevent counterfeit, supply chains should be kept secure through authorized supply chains for genuine vaccine products.

2. Plan ahead to optimize logistics.

Make sure air-cargo operators are pre-authorized to fly several thousand additional flights. Cargo flights need permits for landing, overflight and airport slots. These need to be approved expeditiously. Airports need to be ready to support exceptional operations, such as night-time flights. Air cargo crews themselves need to be able to travel, as outlined in the International Civil Aviation Organizations’s (ICAO) Public Health Corridor concept for relief operations, which deals with exemptions to quarantines, travel bans and (unless symptomatic) pre-departure and on-arrival testing requirements.

In addition, governments must facilitate cross-border road haulage and open dedicated lanes at land crossings. To limit interruptions in vaccine transport, border requirements need to be simplified and where possible automated. Vaccines transiting one country on the way to the next should be unimpeded, while police, military and other security services should refrain from stopping vaccine transports at inland checkpoints.

What is the World Economic Forum doing on trade facilitation?

The Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation is a collaboration of international organisations, governments and businesses led by the Center for International Private Enterprise, the International Chamber of Commerce and the World Economic Forum, in cooperation with Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit.

It aims to help governments in developing and least developed countries implement the World Trade Organization’s Trade Facilitation Agreement by bringing together governments and businesses to identify opportunities to address delays and unnecessary red-tape at borders. Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation | Benefits of Trade

For example, in Colombia, the Alliance worked with the National Food and Drug Surveillance Institute and business to introduce a risk management system that can facilitate trade while protecting public health, cutting the average rate of physical inspections of food and beverages by 30% and delivering $8.8 million in savings for importers in the first 18 months of operation.

They must also identify all regulatory requirements and determine whether any should be expedited or waived. Many levels of government (central/federal, regional/state and local) may require licenses or approvals for the distribution, storage or other logistical handlings of vaccines. A coordinated effort should be made to review these.

3. Prepare for a temperature-controlled, dangerous-goods supply chain.

Certain vaccines may need to be kept deeply refrigerated, some as low as -70 C. Temperature-controlled facilities for the priority storage of vaccines should be made available or, if necessary, rapidly developed. As dry-ice may be needed during shipment, this requires special dangerous goods procedures.

Airplane manufacturers need to urgently update their guidance on this. Aircraft operators should conduct safety risk assessments. Vaccine manufacturers and shippers who plan to use RFID or GPS data loggers to ensure the integrity of the supply chain, need to approve these devices with their supply chain partners in advance.

Governments should publish guidance for vaccine shippers to ensure they are prepared for requirements such as compliance with classification of genetically modified organisms (UN3245) to avoid transporters needing to reject shipments. Ideally, audit processes would be used for compliance, rather than requiring individual acceptance of every shipment.

4. Avoid border bottlenecks at crunch time.

Governments must streamline and standardize trade requirements. The early stages of the pandemic demonstrated how important electronic records, e-payment, and digital risk management processes are for fast border clearance. Border agencies should use electronic pre-arrival data and communicate electronically and promptly with supply chain actors.

COVID-19 vaccines will extremely urgent shipments which should be declared essential, exempt from export restrictions, cleared before their physical arrival at the border and exempt from import duties. The same standard (WCO) dataset should work for both export and import clearance.

Recognizing, in particular, the temperature-sensitive nature of some vaccines, physical examinations should be carried out only on a risk-basis and only at appropriate storage facilities, such as at the end user. Given the specific transport equipment needed for the safe transport of vaccines (such as temperature-controlled containers) these should cleared inbound and outbound based on the transport manifest and be exempt from duty and bond/guarantee requirements for temporary admission and return.

5. Ensure cooperation among stakeholders.

This will not be an ordinary operation. Expectations are very high. All these issues should be addressed urgently through cooperation between regulators and the private sector, in particular pharma and logistics.

For its part, the World Economic Forum is supporting COVID-19 vaccination by bringing together leaders to collaborate on actions including amplifying trusted information, increasing confidence in vaccines and addressing deployment challenges. For example, the Global Alliance for Trade Facilitation recently partnered with the US-ASEAN Business Council to test the readiness of ASEAN countries to import COVID-19 vaccines and related medical equipment

Through these and other partnerships, we can make sure the worldwide distribution of COVID-19 vaccines runs as smoothly as possible.

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