MIAMI – Two COVID-19 vaccines are in line to be approved for emergency use in the US. Once they obtain government approval, a large transportation network is at the ready.

Today, the daunting task of distributing the vaccine doses has begun with a 24-year-old @FedEx Airbus A300 and 29-year old @UPSAirlines Boeing 757, both in the air with the first shipments of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. As the complexities of distributing millions of doses are immense, the undertaking entails flying over thousands of miles under strict temperature requirements.

Thus, the intricate logistics of the delivery of the vaccines is critical to what is one of the most important cargo operations in modern history. According to a CNN Business special report, we can have an idea of how vaccines will be physically delivered from drug manufacturers to care centers around the world.

Day One

As per the report, manufacturers and shippers are prepared to trigger their distribution chain, a complex system of warehouses, vans, planes, and, finally, the delivery to the location where shots are to be administered, all within 24 hours of an emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration. The training, dry runs, and storage are already underway.

“We’re moving all of the needles, the syringes, the other parts, and pieces to include the alcohol wipes and necessary supplies in order to administer these vaccines,” Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski told CNN Business. He is the Director of Procurement, Development and Distribution for Operation Warp Pace, the initiative of the US government to create a vaccine for Covid-19.

In Kalamazoo, Michigan, Pfizer (PFE) stores an unspecified number of vaccine doses. Pfizer doses will be packed into trucks until the vaccine is approved and all of it will be sent to airports to be loaded onto planes. The delivery of vaccines for Moderna (MRNA) is expected to be managed by McKesson, a medical supplies firm.

Ostrowski told the news outlet of the Pfizer vaccine, “It’s a really quick process, simply putting together the packages on dry ice and shipping them out,” in trucks that will ferry the vaccines to airplanes across the world.

Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport. Photo: UPS Worldport

Keeping the Cargo Cold

Active cooling containers and passive cooling containers are two ways to hold the vaccines cold in transit. To keep the contents cold, active containers use batteries and a cooling system. When they are on the field, the containers are charged, then the battery system kicks in when they are in transit.

Temperature sensor devices in actively cooled containers often have the potential to send an alarm if the temperature deviates beyond the permitted range — even marginally, by a quarter of a degree.

Passive containers, depending on how cold it needs to be and how long the journey is are filled with ice packs or dry ice. Usually, if the route has more than one stop, these containers would switch between the legs of the trip to cold storage facilities.

In large amounts, dry ice can pose its own risk. Regulators usually have strict dry ice weight limits on flights because it releases dioxide carbon that can cause aircrew incapacitation.” But airlines claim regulators are marginally relaxing those restrictions for the delivery of vaccines.

UPS said it generates 24,000 pounds of dry ice every day and provides all the dry ice that Operation Warp Speed uses. “We will ship a box of 40 pounds of dry ice to all Pfizer dosing locations a day after the vaccine arrives,” UPS said. When the planes land, the time-sensitive process of keeping the vaccines cold begins.

FedEx Boeing 777. Photo: Allen Zhao

The Vaccine in the Air

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), thousands of flights will be needed to spread vaccines around the world—about 8,000. As for FedEx and UPS, they are splitting up the country as part of Operation Warp Speed to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine as soon as the FDA issues its approval.

According to FedEx, it will deliver the vaccine to the western half of the US while UPS will deliver to the Eastern half. “Of course, FedEx and UPS have split the country into two,” said Wes Wheeler, president of Global Healthcare at UPS. “We know exactly what states we have, and they know what states they have.”

UPS declined to tell CNN how the companies will divide vaccine shipments. FedEx said in a statement that vaccine distribution “will be balanced among major cargo carriers and we are one of two primary vaccine shippers in the US.” Regardless of UPS and FedEx saying they do not need airlines to transport the vaccine, major carriers such as American Airlines (AA) are at the ready for the delivery, too.

American Airlines says that about a half-million vaccine doses can be borne by its widebody 787 jetliners. AA started operating test flights between South America and Miami in mid-November, where it would deliver vaccine shipments to the United States.

As per the report, AA also claimed that the test flights “simulate the conditions required for the COVID-19 vaccine to stress test the thermal packaging and operational handling process that will ultimately ensure it remains stable as it moves across the globe.”

Thus, a combination of cargo jets and commercial planes will be the aircraft used to deliver the vaccine. In some cases, passenger flights will be cargo-only but come 2021, it is entirely possible that vaccinations will be delivered via passenger flight as belly cargo.

American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER. Photo: Luca Flores

Vaccine Storage Facilities

“The quantities of vaccine or we envisage moving will be enormous, particularly if we get multiple vaccines approved in a short space of time,” said Roger Samways, the vice president of cargo sales at AA. “I think fairly quickly we could reach a situation where actually most of the planes out there, carry vaccines in one shape or form.”

According to AA, the carrier has a 25,000 square-foot facility in Philadelphia that it primarily uses for pharmaceutical shipments. The plant is able to charge 50 large, actively cooled containers simultaneously, in addition to storage bays with four refrigeration levels ranging from just above freezing to minus-20 degrees Celsius.

Dual cooling systems and a generator in the event of power failure are provided in each of the refrigerated compartments, wide enough to move many vehicles and pallets. At Dulles airport outside Washington, United Airlines has a large refrigerated storage facility that maintains pharmaceutical and other shipments that need to keep chilled.

Although these facilities play a vital role in the chain, the aim is to limit the amount of time spent there on shipments. “Our job is to move things as quickly as possible maintaining the temperature while it’s in our possession,” said Samways.

FedEx Boeing 777F. Photo: Thomas Saunders

Vaccines’ Final Destination

From the storage facilities, the already dry-ice-packaged vaccines will be loaded into trucks that will run the last leg of the distribution chain and delivering the precious cargo to its final destinations.

UPS (UPS) said it oversees “a highly coordinated set of movements” from its Louisville, Kentucky, around-the-clock command center, tracking the shipments and monitoring each package’s temperature remotely. UPS claims that delivery interruptions can be detected by its command center program.

With dry ice created by UPS, the suitcase-sized containers holding the Pfizer vaccines at its facilities will be packed and ready for ground delivery.

In order to help preserve the vaccine at its necessary super-cold transport and storage temperature, FedEx (FDX) on its part says it has more than 90 cold storage facilities worldwide. The company says it currently transports approximately half a million dry ice-containing shipments per month.

The vaccines will then be “delivered directly to the point of vaccination if specified by the jurisdiction,” according to a briefing transcript from the White House. The next steps in the delivery of the vaccine are at this point finally in the hands of state and local authorities.

Featured image: UPS BOeing 747-400. Photo: Wiki Commons.