Malaysia Airlines has delivered the country’s first COVID-19 vaccines on Sunday. The carrier operated a flight from Belgium to Kuala Lumpur with several stops in between, carrying over 300,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. The country expects thousands of doses more to arrive every fortnight from now on.
According to The Straits Times, Malaysia’s first consignment of 312,390 Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine doses arrived on 21st February. Manufactured in Puurs, Belgium, the doses made their way from Brussels to Kuala Lumpur on several different flights. The doses were also transported between different aircraft at stops, according to accounts.
The flight reportedly stopped in Leipzig, Germany, and Singapore during the long-haul route between the countries. The doses finally arrived on flight MH604 from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, touching down at 10:00 AM local time.
While it is common for vaccine delivery flights to make stops on the way, it’s unclear why Malaysia Airlines opted to switch planes and move the vaccines. The vaccines arrived on a nine-year-old Airbus A330-300, registered 9M-MTE.
Speaking about his experience piloting the vaccine flight to The Borneo Post, Captain Hamdan Che Ismail described the experience as “nerve-racking” and said, “When I thought about the Covid-19 vaccine supply on the plane, I was worried that it (the supply) could get spoilt … Alhamdulillah, the vaccine supply has now reached Malaysia.”
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More to come
While the first vaccine delivery is a momentous occasion for any airline and country, Malaysia can expect many more of these flights to come. The second batch of Pfizer vaccines will arrive on February 26th and then fly in every two weeks. Additionally, China’s Sinovac vaccine will also make its first delivery on February 27th.
Transporting COVID-19 vaccines, especially ones made by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, require ultra-cold temperatures of nearly -70°C. If this temperature is not maintained throughout the transportation journey, the doses could be spoiled. Onboard, dry ice is used to keep the vaccines at their optimal temperature.
The last few months have seen airlines around the globe fly to vaccine hubs like Belgium to pick their allocated doses. Mainly two types of airlines have been flying these missions: flag carriers and major hub-and-spoke carriers.
Vaccine transport will be a lucrative business for airlines, with billions of doses needing to be transported to every corner of the earth. Currently, flag carriers and major hub airlines have taken the lead in international vaccine transport. While national airlines are the most efficient way to move vaccines (and has a point of national pride attached), hub carriers offer the strongest network and well-developed facilities to keep vaccines safe.
As vaccine availability rises, expect more airlines to jump at the chance to carry doses when it becomes available. Eventually, mass vaccination will be the first step to containing COVID-19 and allow travel to truly recover.