DGCA issues guidelines for carrying Covid vaccines as India gets ready for inoculation

Covid-19 vaccines typically need storage temperatures of -8°C to -70°C, which makes the use of refrigerant material necessary during transportation

DGCA issues guidelines for carrying Covid vaccines as India gets ready for inoculation
Representative image . Image courtesy: Unsplash

With India poised to vaccinate its people against the coronavirus, and air transport slated to play a pivotal role, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has issued detailed guidelines for airlines and other aircraft operators for the transportation of the vaccines. 

The Indian civil aviation regulator, in its order dated January 8, 2021, said, "All scheduled operators who have been currently authorised to carry dangerous goods may carry Covid-19 vaccines packed in dry ice, meeting the regulatory requirements." Non-scheduled operators, including aircraft engaged in general aviation, which are required to carry Covid-19 vaccines packed in dry ice, would have to seek specific approval before commencing operations, the DGCA added. 

The main challenge in the transportation of Covid-19 vaccines is maintaining the right temperature. These vaccines typically need storage temperatures of -8°C to -70°C, which makes the use of refrigerant material necessary during transportation. Though there are many refrigerant options, dry ice (solid carbon dioxide) is the "most commonly used, affordable and readily available" among them for the transportation of perishable goods by air, the DGCA pointed out. 

The regulator added that dry ice continually sublimates (turns into carbon dioxide gas) at temperatures higher than -78°C under normal atmospheric pressure. The sublimation rate will increase at reduced pressures while all other factors remain the same. This property of dry ice has led the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to classify dry ice as Class 9 -- Miscellaneous Dangerous Goods. 

According to the DGCA circular, air operators would have to establish the maximum quantity of dry ice that can be loaded in a given cargo hold and/or compartment or in the passenger cabin  (when a passenger aircraft is being used for transporting the vaccines). This would be based on the guidelines of the plane manufacturer, sublimation rate and requirements of the operators' Safety Management Systems. 

Also read: Covid-19 vaccination to cover 30 crore Indians from January-July, MoCA fully ready

"For the transport of vaccines in dry ice in excess of the limit specified in the operations manual or other applicable aircraft manufacturer documents, the operator should perform a specific risk assessment," the DGCA said. 

The circular added that operators would have to prepare and dos and don'ts for the handling of vaccines and packages containing the vaccines would have to be handled only by trained personnel.

The circular made it clear that vaccines packed in dry ice should preferably be transported in lower-deck cargo compartments of aircraft. However, in case they are carried in the passenger cabin, no passengers should be allowed onboard. The operator has also been directed to ensure that the flight crew is not harmed by carbon-dioxide incapacitation or intoxication and that the crew should be properly trained on the hazards of transporting dry ice and the procedures for handling it.

The Drugs Controller General of India (DCGI) on January 3 announced final approval for two Covid-19 vaccines -- Oxford-AstraZeneca's Covishield and Bharat Biotech's Covaxin. The vaccine rollout in India is expected to start in a few days. 

Civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri said during a press conference in New Delhi on December 29 that it is expected that the Covid-19 vaccine will be available in India from January 2021, and the effort will be to vaccinate nearly 30 crore Indians from January to July 2021, for which at least 60 crore doses will be needed.

SpiceJet is set to press its cargo arm SpiceXpress into service. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/N509FZ

Civil Aviation Secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola added that the aviation ministry is also preparing a cold chain for the transportation of the Covid-19 vaccine.

"Delhi airport, the largest cargo hub of South Asia region is fully prepared and geared up to facilitate distribution of COVID-19 vaccines with a handling capability of 1.8 million MT, which is scalable to 2.3 million MT," the Delhi airport tweeted. Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL) CEO Videh Kumar Jaipuriar said that the Covid-19 vaccines should be available for distribution from January.

Also read -- Operation Covid Vaccine: SpiceJet teams up with logistics players, targets difficult goal

SpiceXpress, the dedicated cargo wing of SpiceJet said on December 2 that it is fully equipped and ready for seamlessly transporting the vaccine through a specialised service called Spice Pharma Pro. The airline has partnered with Om Logistics Limited, which is one of the biggest logistics companies in the country. Om Logistics will provide SpiceJet with the refrigerated trucks to cover the first mile and last mile across the length and breadth of the country. SpiceJet will provide the necessary air support  

The airline has an agreement with Snowman Logistics for the distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines as well. SpiceJet has also tied up with global leaders in cold chain solutions offering active and passive packaging with dedicated equipment to perform seamless cold chain operations.