Overcoming COVID-19 disruptions to transport vaccines

UNICEF, the largest single-buyer of vaccines in the world, championed innovative freight solutions to overcome COVID-19 disruptions and transport vaccines to those who need them the most in 2020.

A one-month-old baby boy gets a mark on his finger after receiving the polio vaccine in Kumasi, in the Ashanti region of Ghana.
UNICEF/UN0353300/Kofi Acquah
26 April 2021

Each year, UNICEF coordinates an average of 2,700 shipments to deliver over two billion doses of vaccines, to reach approximately 45 per cent of the world’s children under five years of age. From March to May in a typical year, UNICEF would have made more than 700 shipments of vaccines to countries – most as airfreight on commercial flights. In the same three-month period in 2020 this number was nearly halved. The steep decline was due to the COVID-19 pandemic unprecedented impact on global freight operations, creating a massive backlog of shipments.

In mid-June 2020 commercial flights slowly began to resume but at lower frequency and to limited destinations. This resulted in widespread competition for available cargo space and higher freight costs. Many countries continued to be extremely hard to reach by air and some had no available commercial freight options at all.  

Multi-stop charter flights

To get vaccines to countries in this challenging context, UNICEF championed innovative, collaborative and agile shipping solutions, particularly for smaller countries with access challenges or for which individual charter flights would come at exorbitant costs.

One such solution was the concept of multi-stop charter flights, which was first piloted by UNICEF in June 2020. Under this approach, several smaller vaccine shipments are pooled into a single aircraft, making stops in several countries. This innovative freight solution substantially decreased the cost of delivery for each country, while supporting access to vaccines in locations that would be otherwise difficult to reach due to pandemic-related lockdowns and lack of commercial freight options.

The first multi-stop charter took place in early June 2020, originating in India and delivering 20 million vaccine doses produced by Indian vaccine manufacturers to reach eight countries in West and Central Africa – a region with some of the lowest immunization coverage rates in the world.  

Following on from the success of this operation, a second and third charter were coordinated in late June and early July, originating from the European logistics hub in Belgium where the vaccine doses were consolidated, and reaching a total of eight countries in West and Central Africa, including those hardest to reach.  

Graphic illustrating immunization supplies delivered by UNICEF in 2020.

Dedicated charters and partnerships

UNICEF also worked with partners to carry out dedicated charters for larger countries, consolidating vaccines and other cargo. For example, a collaboration with the European Union (EU) supported UNICEF to send 243 tons of vital supplies to Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti and Yemen among other countries, on board 14 EU Humanitarian Air Bridge flights in 2020. The UNICEF cargo included not only vaccines, but also medical equipment and other health supplies to help children and families, and to support countries to keep up essential health services during the pandemic.

Relying on innovative solutions like these to overcome unprecedented freight disruptions, UNICEF managed a total of 2,394 vaccine shipments and successfully delivered 2.01 billion vaccine doses to 102 countries in 2020 – reaching 80 countries between mid-March and mid-June alone. Despite the dramatic dip in shipments at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in a 22 per cent drop in total vaccine shipments in 2020, UNICEF Supply Division minimized the impact in total vaccine doses delivered reaching 2.01 billion doses in 2020 compared to 2.29 billion in 2019.

Although there are additional complexities involved in making vaccine transport operations a reality, it is innovative freight solutions like these that are supporting countries in their efforts to continue, conduct catch-up and further revitalize immunization services.

Graphic illustrating immunization supplies delivered by UNICEF in 2020.


Beyond transport: how work around vaccines did not stop during the pandemic

UNICEF has a long history of working with governments, vaccine manufacturers, global and local partners to achieve vaccine security and ensure equitable access to meet immunization coverage goals. This work did not stop during the COVID-19 pandemic, and UNICEF continued to support exchange of information and knowledge sharing around issues related to vaccine security.  

One of the ways UNICEF engages with vaccine industry representatives is via an annual Vaccine Industry Consultation (VIC) to discuss strategic direction, understand challenges and review market perspectives. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the 2020 VIC was held virtually. The online format helped to support record-breaking attendance, with representatives from 34 manufacturers currently supplying or intending to supply vaccines through UNICEF. In addition to manufacturers, participants from 12 partner organizations tuned in to attend the event across time zones.

Similarly, the annual Vaccine Procurement Practitioners Exchange Forum (VPPEF) convened over 350 participants from 74 countries – the largest VPPEF to date – and featured panelists from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organization and UNICEF Supply Division. UNICEF established the VPPEF in 2015 as a resource for procurement practitioners supporting national immunization programmes. It focuses on providing support and information for middle-income countries facing challenges in accessing vaccine supply at affordable prices.

UNICEF will continue to work in collaboration with governments and partners to address the supply and demand complexities and to meet the goal of fully immunizing every child.

June 2020: a vaccine shipment of Hepatitis B, Measles and Rubella (MR) and Pentavalent vaccines (DPT-HepB-Hib) intended for children under 1 lands in Nouakchott, Mauritania.
June 2020: a vaccine shipment of Hepatitis B, Measles and Rubella (MR) and Pentavalent vaccines (DPT-HepB-Hib) intended for children under 1 lands in Nouakchott, Mauritania.