Around 8,000 jumbo jets will be needed to deliver doses of the coronavirus vaccine globally. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said on Thursday that distributing the vaccine to different parts of the world would be the “largest transport challenge ever.”

While the research community has yet to develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine, the IATA is already creating a distribution program that will be used once the vaccine becomes available. “Safely delivering COVID-19 vaccines will be the mission of the century for the global air cargo industry,” said IATA chief executive Alexandre de Juniac. “But it won’t happen without careful advance planning. And the time for that is now,” he said.

The IATA estimates that at least 8,000 Boeing 747s will be needed to ship the coronavirus vaccines to different parts of the world, assuming that each person will need only one dose of the vaccine. However, the IATA also acknowledged that delivery to certain parts of the globe would be challenging due to lack of vaccine-production capabilities.

The IATA explained that not all planes operating around the world are suitable for delivering vaccines, as vaccines typically need to be stored at temperatures ranging between 2 and 8C when being transported. The IATA also noted that some vaccines even require frozen temperatures, which not all aircrafts can provide.

“We know the procedures well,” said Glyn Hughes of the IATA. “What we need to do is scale them up to the magnitude that will be required,” she added.

According to the IATA, flights to South East Asia and Africa will particularly be more critical than the others as most planes in both regions do not have vaccine-production capabilities. The IATA also noted that Africa lacks cargo capacity and border crossings in the region would make vaccine transportation almost unachievable.

The IATA urged governments around the world to start planning the delivery of the COVID-19 shots to ensure that they are prepared as soon as the vaccines are approved for distribution. “Vaccines will be highly valuable commodities,” said the IATA. “Arrangements must be in place to ensure that shipments remain secure from tampering and theft.”

An Aeromexico Boeing 777 on the runway. Image Reuters