Ethiopian Airlines is set to take a lead role in ferrying COVID-19 vaccines around the world and expects demand for the service to last for up to three years.
Africa’s biggest carrier has turned to cargo services to shore up revenue after the onset of the coronavirus crisis last year sent passenger numbers down sharply.
“We have aircrafts converted from passengers by removing their seats, 16 of them, which are very wide aircrafts converted to transport vaccines,” Fitsum Abadi, the managing director of Ethiopian Cargo said.
He spoke after an Ethiopian plane landed with the country’s first 2.2 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines acquired through the COVAX global vaccine-sharing initiative.
Last December, Ethiopian Airlines reached a deal with Cainiao Network, the logistics arm of China’s Alibaba Group, to establish an international cold chain from China for the supply of pharmaceuticals, including vaccines.
Under the deal, temperature-controlled pharmaceuticals are distributed twice a week from the Chinese city of Shenzhen to Africa and beyond via hubs in Dubai and Addis Ababa.
Fitsum said Ethiopian, which operates a fleet of 128 Boeing, Airbus and Bombardier planes, has set up a dedicated vaccine transportation team to liaise with manufacturers.
The main customers are ministries of health around the world, he said.
“This vaccine will be transported for the coming two to three years and we will be the major player of transportation of vaccines,” Fitsum said.
Ethiopian was in “a good position” financially despite the pandemic, he said, as revenue from its cargo business, maintenance and charter services helped offset the collapse in demand for passenger travel.
The passenger service has also started to recover and it is now close to 50% of its normal levels, he said, without offering more details.