Kenya is rushing against time to have the national carrier included in the list of airlines that will transport coronavirus vaccines to different parts of the world when they become available.
This is after Unicef signed a deal with 10 airlines to help bridge the Covid-19 logistical nightmare.
Kenya Airways is conspicuously missing from the register, which includes some of the world's biggest players like Etihad, Qatar Airways, Air France, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, United Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines.
Apart from Ethiopian, Nairobi-based Astral Aviation is the only other African carrier on the list.
Early this month, Astral Aviation launched a Boeing 767 as it sought to expand its capacity in the cargo market. The firm operates in Africa and Europe.
The carrier announced last year that it was ready to begin distributing Covid-19 vaccines to more than 50 destinations.
"These airlines have signed agreements to support the prioritisation of delivery of Covid-19 vaccines, essential medicines, humanitarian supplies, medical devices and other critical goods to respond to the pandemic," Unicef said.
The UN agency is procuring and assisting in the delivery of Covid-19 vaccines under the Covax Initiative to low and middle-income countries.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) launched Covax last year to ensure equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines across the world, regardless of the country's economic status, in order to defeat the deadly virus.
WHO intends to distribute 1.8 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to at least 92 countries in 2021. As of February 15, the world had administered more than 175 million doses.
The United States at 52 million), China (40 million), the United Kingdom (15 million) and India (eight million) are leading in terms of vaccine doses administered.
This week, Kenya cleared its first Covid-19 vaccine - AstraZenecca - paving the way for its rollout soon.
Nairobi expects 24 million doses of the vaccine next week, according to Health Chief Administrative Secretary Mercy Mwangangi.
"Delivery of these 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," Unicef Supply Division boss Etleve Kadilli said.
The Unicef announcement came a week after Transport and Infrastructure Cabinet Secretary James Macharia unveiled Kenya's first "Preighter" in preparation for the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and other cargo.
"The repurposing of Boeing 787 planes is a clear indication that there is demand for air cargo. This is an opportunity for local manufacturers to ramp up production and take advantage of the increased capacity being offered by our national carrier," Mr Macharia said.
"As a government, we will continue to partner with cargo operators like Kenya Airways to enable them expand their footprint across Africa and reduce the cost of logistics."
KQ has missed out on the boon - for now. Mr Macharia told the Saturday Nation that Kenya Airways and Unicef had no prior agreement. For the airline to be included on the list of transporters, it has to go through an audit, "which is ongoing," he said.
The minister added that Kenya Airways is in talks with other potential sponsors, as Unicef is only handling 20 per cent of the coronavirus vaccines.
"If we need more vaccines - which we will eventually - we will engage other sponsors to bring them," the Transport CS said.
Unicef Kenya chief of communication Andrew Brown yesterday said that Kenya Airways had not excluded from the Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative.
"At the time the global list of airlines was compiled, they were not flying. Kenya Airways recently requested to join the Initiative and their application is being reviewed by Unicef Supply Division in Copenhagen. The outcome will be communicated to Kenya Airways shortly. If successful, they will join the Initiative," Mr Brown said.
The selected carriers are expected to transport 600 million doses of the vaccine between March and December. These are the free vaccines that the WHO is supplying to Africa to cover about 20 per cent of the population in the continent.
Unicef and Gavi are paying for the vaccines for Africa but the UN agency is doing the procurement and logistics. The Unicef Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative has been formed with leading airlines to secure transport of vaccines and other life-saving supplies worldwide.
The programme supports the Covax Facility, a global solution to the Covid-19 pandemic that ensures participating countries have fair access to vaccines, regardless of their income level. Under Covax, Unicef is leading the procurement and delivery of quality-assured Covid-19 vaccines for low and lower middle-income countries.
According to a KQ top official who sought anonymity, missing out on the list does not mean the airline is incapable of transporting the vaccines.
"Unicef is progressively enlisting airlines and is not biased against Kenya Airways in any way," the official said. "The only thing that will determine our getting into the list is the business capability, which we have."
The KQ manager added that the agreement is in the last stages and that the airline will soon be in the list of transporters.
KQ Cargo Commercial Manager Peter Musola said the airline has been improving its cargo business since the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted international travel in March last year.
"The new Kenya Airways pharma wing is expected to play an integral part in the shipment and storage of Covid-19 vaccines and other medical products," Mr Musola said during the launch. "We have been shipping medical cargo to many countries for some time. We participated in flying cargo to Mozambique when it was hit by Cyclone Idai. That means Kenya Airways has the needed experience."
According to the KQ website, the new facility has a capacity of up to 300 tonnes and is fitted with temperature sensors that can be monitored remotely.
"Kenya Airways' decision to improve the cargo holding facility came at a time dozens of airlines and logistics companies across the world are preparing to transport vaccines," KQ Warehouse Sales and Customer Account Manager Nancy Adembo said.
The centre covers 600 square metres purely dedicated for the handling of temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals.
Charter cargo service
It is segregated in three temperature levels - a room for loose cargo storage at 15 to 25°C with a capacity for 40 euro-pallets on the ground and two level racking for loose cargo.
It also has a separate cold room for loose cargo storage at 2°C to 8°C with the capacity to store 22 euro-pallets on the ground.
Meanwhile, Sanjeev Gadhia, Astral Aviation CEO, told the Saturday Nation that the carrier is ready to deliver to the best of their ability.
The all-cargo airline provides scheduled and charter cargo service to destinations in Africa and Europe, with its fleet of B747, B727, McDonnell Douglas DC-9,BAE ATP, Fokker 50 and Fokker 27 freighters operating out of Nairobi and Liege hubs.
Its fleet consists of 14 cargo aircraft .
"We are truly honoured to be selected by Unicef based on our record in performing humanitarian flights within Africa and the Middle East in the past 20 years," he said. "Our cold storage facility at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport can hold up to 100 million doses of vaccines."
John Owuor, who works at Astral, said their planes have modern technology to carry vaccines.
" The 797-200 F has special temperature controls that go up to - 40 degrees," he said .
The planes have thermal blankets to cover vaccines so that the temperature does not drop.
Mr Gadhia said that they will be placing their entire fleet of B747F, B767F, B727F, DC9F, CRJ-200, Fokker 50 and Fokker 27 on high priority which is critical to the timely and secure delivery of vaccines.
Additional reporting by Leon Lidigu