MIAMI – FedEx and UPS 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 comment on 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.”
“We have worked closely with our healthcare customers on a highly orchestrated and precise distribution plan, but are not releasing details,” the company said.
Passenger Airlines Not Needed
Officials at FedEx and UPS on Thursday told a congressional panel that they believe their companies can handle domestic distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine entirely without needing to call on US passenger airlines that have spent recent months preparing to transport the vaccine.
Commercialappeal.com quotes Richard Smith, FedEx Express Regional President of the Americas, as saying that FedEx Express has reserved capacity for COVID-19 vaccine shipments and is working with the Federal Aviation Administration to give flights with doses top priority, said. Also, FedEx and UPS are teaming up to get vaccine doses and related supplies shipped to administration sites.
“In some cases, that relationship is interdependent, with them shipping the kitting and us shipping the vaccine to certain states, so we’re relying on one another,” Smith said.
Both executives were confident in the companies’ massive shipping networks. Smith said FedEx will be able to deliver vaccines to locations throughout the US “absolutely, positively overnight” through FedEx Express, with capacity reserved for the Operation Warp Speed distribution mission.
“Once the vaccines are approved and ready for distribution, vaccine and related healthcare shipments will be the top priority for the FedEx Express network, with support provided by our FedEx Logistics and Custom Critical teams,” he said.
Everyone Wants a Piece of the Pie
Smith’s comments reflect jockeying among carriers for a share of the vaccine distribution business. McKesson, an Irving, Texas, pharmaceutical distribution company, has been selected by Operation Warp Speed to oversee the process. A company spokesman did not return a call for comment.
Delta Air Lines (DL), United Airlines (UA), and American Airlines (AA) have all been conducting test flights in preparation for delivering the vaccines, which can require storage at minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit) to remain effective.
Rollcall.com reports that late last month the Federal Aviation Administration permitted United Airlines, which is conducting charter flights from Brussels to Chicago with Pfizer’s vaccine, to carry 15,000 pounds of dry ice on charter flights carrying the vaccine — five times more than the roughly 3,000 pounds normally permitted.
Delta has established warehouses and cooler facilities in Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York-JFK, and Seattle to store the vaccines. And American Airlines began conducting trial vaccine flights last month from Miami to South America on its Boeing 777-200 aircraft.
But Smith repeatedly emphasized that his company and UPS are sufficiently equipped to deliver what Subcommittee Chairwoman Deb Fischer, R-Neb., said would be as many as 660 million vaccine doses. The vaccine requires two doses per person.
“There are only two companies in the United States of America that have the networks to connect all those O [operations] and D [distribution] pairs that I talked about on an overnight basis, and they’re both represented at this table,” he said. “The reason we’re both here and we’re both doing this is because we’re the only ones who can.”
Operation Warp Speed will be one of the largest vaccination campaigns in modern history. But a large logistical puzzle must fall into place to get vaccines from manufacturers to distributors or providers.
One of the challenges associated with shipping the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines is keeping them at required ultra-low temperatures: negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit and negative four degrees Fahrenheit, respectively.
FedEx Regional President of the Americas Richard Smith said the company has made “significant investments” into their cold-chain infrastructure over the years that will allow them to effectively move the vaccine.
“At present, we have more than 90 temp-control facilities across five continents with plans to open additional facilities in the coming years,” he said at the hearing. “We’re also expanding our network of ultra-low temperature freezers at some of our major hubs. Missions like this require various contingencies, and we are prepared to respond as needed.”
SouthcoastToday.com reports UPS President of Global Healthcare Wesley Wheeler as saying that his company has “extensive” experience handling shipments at all temperatures. The temperature of the vaccine while in transit, Wheeler said, is maintained by its packaging, which is designed to keep the internal temperature stable for several days.
“Pfizer and McKesson have chosen appropriate, validated, and environmentally friendly packaging for these two vaccines and we have extensively tested both,” Wheeler said at the hearing. “UPS has also invested in dry ice manufacturing capacity for replenishment at dosing sites where required.”
Featured image: Photo: Luke Ayers/Airways