Hemisphere Weekly: Airlines sign agreement to support COVAX delivery

15 major commercial airlines—including AirFrance/KLM, Lufthansa Cargo, and United Airlines—have signed an agreement with UNICEF to support the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to hundreds of countries around the world.


Illustration Credit: Jeff Koterba, Cagle Cartoons

On Tuesday, February 16, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and 15 major international commercial airlines signed the UNICEF Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative. According to the UN, these airlines have committed to prioritizing “the delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, essential medicines, medical devices, and other critical supplies to respond to the pandemic,” while also “ensuring measures such as temperature control and security,” both of which are essential for maintaining the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. This initiative is part of a global strategy that aims to guarantee that all countries have fair and equitable access to vaccines. The Airfreight Initiative will support COVAX—the largest vaccine procurement and supply program in the world, backed by the World Health Organization, GAVI (a joint public-private global health partnership), and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Initiatives. COVAX involves 190 countries, including much of the Caribbean and Latin America, and aims to provide two billion vaccines worldwide by the end of 2021. 

UNICEF is confident that the Airfreight Initiative will facilitate the secure and efficient transport and delivery of COVID-19 vaccines across the globe. Airlines including Lufthansa Cargo, AirFrance/KLM, Cathay Pacific, United Airlines, Emirates Skycargo, and IAG Cargo (British Airways) have already signed the agreement; however, many additional commercial and freight airlines have expressed their willingness to participate in the Airfreight Initiative.
According to One World in Data, Chile has the highest rate of administered COVID-19 vaccine doses per 100 people in Latin America. (Israel holds the global title in this category as of February 16, and is closely followed by the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and the United States). Beyond vaccination distribution, Chile has also emerged as a world leader in vaccine acquisition, securing COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Sinovac, Johnson & Johnson, and the COVAX program. The country’s successful maneuverings to secure around 90 million vaccine doses are somewhat surprising (and not only because 90 million doses are more than sufficient to fully vaccinate Chile’s population of roughly 19 million). Rather than promoting the country’s relative economic strength and reputation for effective economic management, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera has used the specter of sociopolitical conflict (eruptions of which have plagued Chile since 2019) and a grim short-term economic outlook (due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic) as leverage in negotiations with pharmaceutical companies and international allies—relying particularly hard on the country’s close ties to the U.S. and other Western powers.
Last Sunday, Mexico received 870,000 vaccine doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine from India, and announced that it will soon start to administer them to the elderly. On Tuesday, February 16, Mexico received an additional 494,000 doses from Pfizer. With the financial support of the philanthropic foundation of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, Mexico recently began working with Argentina to secure the distribution of around 250 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine across Latin America. The Mexican government has also expressed willingness to cooperate with Cuba—even offering to host the Phase 3 clinical trial of the Cuban vaccine—although such efforts are still awaiting authorization. To date, Mexico has received over 1.6 million vaccine doses, and is still awaiting millions of doses more, following its signing of agreements to purchase large quantities of the Chinese CanSino and the Russian Sputnik V vaccines. Nevertheless, Mexico has only administered an estimated 189,000 vaccine doses since commencing its vaccination campaign earlier this week. 

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