Air France-KLM prepares COVID-19 vaccine airlift

PARIS (Reuters) – Air France-KLM is among airlines gearing up for the challenge of transporting millions of doses of temperature-sensitive COVID-19 vaccines in the midst of a travel slump.

Breakthrough vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna have yet to win final approval, but the drugmakers, their logistics and cargo providers are not waiting for a green light to activate freight plans.

Air France-KLM, which has decades of experience shipping medicines and vaccines in temperature-controlled conditions, is preparing a test run in coming days to fly out dummy vaccine shipments from KLM’s Amsterdam-Schiphol hub.

The task is complicated by the conditions required by the Pfizer and Moderna shots – with respective storage temperatures of minus 80 Celsius and minus 20C.

“It’s going to be a major logistics challenge,” said Air France cargo chief Christophe Boucher, citing the “massive” volume of vaccines to be distributed globally.

“Another difficulty is the temperature control,” Boucher said in an interview at Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport – where cargo specialists were preparing to load consignments of super-cooled rabies vaccines bound for Brazil.

The COVID-19 airlift is being planned amid a partial shutdown of global air travel. Airlines have warned that travel curbs could hamper the effort, since around 45% of global cargo typically travels in passenger plane holds.

Air France-KLM does not rule out bringing idled jets back into service for the vaccine shipments, pharma cargo manager Florent Gand said. “We have some planes currently grounded that we can use if necessary to transport the COVID-19 vaccines around the world.”

(Reporting by Noemie Olive and Laurence Frost; Editing by Mark Potter)

White House-led airlift of urgently needed medical supplies arrives in New York

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A planeload of desperately needed medical supplies arrived in New York from China on Sunday, the first in a series of flights over the next 30 days organized by the White House to help fight the coronavirus, a White House official said.

A commercial carrier landed at John F. Kennedy airport carrying gloves, gowns and masks for distribution in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, three hard-hit states battling to care for a crush of coronavirus patients.

The airlift is a product of a team led by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, which formed “Project Airbridge,” a partnership between large U.S. healthcare distributors such as McKesson Corp, Cardinal, Owens & Minor, Medline and Henry Schein Inc, and the federal government.

Representatives of those companies were to attend a White House meeting later on Sunday with President Donald Trump to discuss the effort, the official said.

The goal is to expedite the arrival of critical medical supplies purchased by the companies over the next 30 days, using planes instead of ships to reduce the shipping time.

“At President Trump’s direction we formed an unprecedented public-private partnership to ensure that massive amounts of masks, gear and other PPE will be brought to the United States immediately to better equip our health care workers on the front lines and to better serve the American people,” Kushner said in a statement.

Trump, accused of initially playing down the threat from the virus, has been searching for supplies to fill the mounting need for equipment to protect healthcare workers caring for COVID-19 patients.

Medical workers across the country are clamoring for equipment to protect themselves from infection as they deal with the flood of virus victims.

The first plane, funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, carried 130,000 N-95 masks; nearly 1.8 million surgical masks and gowns, more than 10.3 million gloves; and more than 70,000 thermometers.

FEMA will distribute most of the supplies to New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut with the rest going to nursing homes in the area and other high-risk areas across the country.

The flight from Shanghai, China, was the first of about 20 flights to arrive between now and early April, the official said. Additional flights will carry similar gear from China, Malaysia and Vietnam, the official said.

“It will be allocated based on need,” the White House official said.

Involved in the effort are the FEMA transportation task force as well as officials at both the U.S. embassy in China as well as the State Department’s East-Asia Pacific team, the official said.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Daniel Wallis)