Sanjeev Gadhia (right), the CEO of Astral Aviation Ltd, inside the plane that will carry Covid-19 vaccine doses at JKIA.

| Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Inside plane that will ferry Covid vaccine doses to Kenya

What you need to know:

  • The plane that will make the maiden trip has thermal blankets used to cover vaccines.
  • This will ensure that the temperature does not drop.
  • The Nairobi airport can store up to 200 million single doses of vaccines at any given time.

At Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) is a plane that will make the maiden flight, carrying Covid-19 vaccine doses from India to Kenya.

The plane by Astral Aviation Ltd can fly home up to 25 million doses of the vaccine in a single trip.

An engineer at Astral tells HealthyNation their planes have the best modern technology to supply vaccines. 

“The B767-200 Freighter has special temperature controls that go up to  – 40 degrees Celsius. When the aircraft is flying high at 40,000 feet, the temperatures go up to – 60 degrees Celsius, but the inside of the plane remains warmer and, therefore, the pilots can adjust temperatures accordingly," says engineer John Owuor, adding that they are putting final touches on their Boeing 767-200F ahead of the flight.

The plane that will make the maiden trip has thermal blankets used to cover vaccines when they are being moved to storage facilities upon arrival, so that the temperature does not drop.

In an exclusive interview with HealthyNation, Sanjeev Gadhia, Astral Aviation CEO, assures that they are ready to deliver the vaccines. "Our cold storage facility at JKIA can hold up to 100 million doses of vaccines," says the CEO.

A recent study by Kenya Airports Authority, Swissport, ACHL, Mitchell Cotts, Siginon and Astral shows the total capacity of cold storage facilities at JKIA is 8,621 square metres (+2 to +8 degrees Celsius ) and 418 square metres  ( -15 to -20 degrees Celsius).

The Astral Aviation plane that will carry Covid-19 vaccine doses at JKIA.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

This means the Nairobi airport can store up to 200 million single doses of vaccines at any given time. "Given that JKIA has the most efficient cool-chain infrastructure for the storage of vaccines in transit to the rest of Africa, it would be viable if the Covax facility lets us distribute to the rest of the countries from Nairobi," proposes Gadhia.

Equitable access

Last week, Kenya Airways (KQ) lost the deal to distribute Covid-19 vaccines around the world after Unicef settled on Astral Aviation, Ethiopian Airways and others.

The deal is part of Unicef’s humanitarian airfreight initiative to support efforts to provide equitable access to the vaccines across the world.

It brings together airlines covering routes to over 100 countries in support of the Covax facility – the global effort aimed at ensuring equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines. 

The other airlines are AirBridgeCargo, Air France KLM Martinair, Brussels Airlines, Cargolux, Cathay Pacific, Emirates SkyCargo, Etihad Cargo, Ethiopian Airlines Cargo, IAG Cargo, Korean Air, Lufthansa Cargo, Qatar Airways, Saudia, Singapore Airlines and United. 

"These airlines have signed agreements with Unicef to support the prioritisation of delivery of Covid-19 vaccines, essential medicines, medical devices and other critical supplies to respond to the pandemic," Unicef said in their statement.

"We are truly honoured to be selected based on our track-record in performing humanitarian flights within Africa and the Middle East in the past 20 years,” says Gadhia, who adds that he is willing to sub-contract KQ to help it distribute the vaccines in Africa.

“I strongly believe we are stronger together. We got the contract because cargo is our forte and we have even worked with the UN in distributing Ebola vaccines from Johnson and Johnson," says the CEO.

The 52-year-old, a banker by profession, started Astral in 2000 after he identified a gap in in Africa for cargo airliners.

Inside the Astral Aviation plane that will carry Covid-19 vaccine doses at JKIA.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

Etleva Kadilli, the director of Unicef’s Supply Division, says the delivery of these life-saving vaccines is a monumental and complex undertaking, considering the sheer volumes that need to be transported, the cold chain requirements, the number of expected deliveries and the diversity of routes.

Covid-19 vaccine task force

Last year, Astral announced it was ready to support the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines across its scheduled network of 15 destinations within Africa and a further 50 destinations available on charters.

That came after the cargo airliner welcomed her first B767-200F from Air Transport Services Group (ATSG).

The aircraft went ahead to commence transportation in mid of January starting off with flights from Nairobi – Sharjah and Nairobi – Johannesburg with two frequencies each per week.

According to the CEO, operating a thin scheduled network allows the airline to operate charters for the Covid-19 vaccine which they consider a priority.

Last year, Kenya submitted its request to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, an organisation appointed by the World Health Organization to oversee procurement, allotment and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines to 92 countries that have signed up for the Covax facility.

"Covax assured us that they will deliver by end of February. Initially, they had not been committing but now they have," Dr Willis Akhwale, Kenya's Covid-19 vaccine task force chairperson, had said.

The programme will only cover the most vulnerable 20 per cent of each country's population.

With each vaccine requiring the administration of two doses, Africa, that boasts of a population of 1.3 billion will need at least 1.6 billion doses to cover its 60 per cent vaccination target.  

As per the Covax facility's indicative distribution and first round allocation plan, 145 countries will receive doses, starting in the first half of 2021 to immunise around three per cent of their population, on average, subject to all requirements being met and final allocation plans.

Astral Aviation’s cold storage facility at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.

Photo credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group

The chosen ones are expected to distribute 600 million doses of the vaccine between March and December 2021 across the world, with Kenya's first batch being supplied by Serum Institute of India, the world's largest vaccine maker.

Earlier this month, the Nation revealed that Kenya was projected to receive about 4.2 million doses of the Covid-19 AstraZeneca vaccine from Gavi-Covax, according to an official interim distribution forecast.

“Final allocations will be published in due course," Gavi said in a statement on its website.

The Health ministry will this week visit Astral Aviation facilities at JKIA.

"The sub- committee tasked with logistics needs to understand and see these things for itself, but we will take over after Unicef delivers the vaccines to us," said the task force chairperson. ​


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