Richard Smith, President of Americas at Fedex Corp., holds a shipping box as he speaks during an Operation Warp Speed Vaccination Summit at the White House in Washington, DC, the United States, on Tuesday, December 8, 2020.
Al Drago | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The first Covid vaccine has just been approved for use in the United States. Late Friday, the Food and Drug Administration approved vaccination with the Pfizer BioNTech coronavirus for nationwide distribution.
In a matter of hours, FedEx and United Parcel Service will deliver 2.9 million doses of the vaccine from Pfizer plants to hospitals, clinics and other distribution points across the country.
“As I speak today, vaccines are packaged with a high focus on quality assurance. To that end, vaccines will roll from manufacturing to distribution centers tomorrow morning,” General Gustave Perna said at a briefing for the Department of Health and Human Services Saturday. “And then vaccines will be received by Monday.”
Vaccine shipments are given special treatment, including priority access to the airport. When a plane with vaccines lands, other passenger planes have to circling and waiting for their turn.
“The reason we’re both here and we’re both doing this is because we’re the only ones who can.” said Richard Smith, executive vice president of FedEx Express, referring to both FedEx and UPS.
Building an ultra-cold cold supply chain
Unlike the other vaccine candidates, Pfizer is particularly difficult to store and ship. It needs to be kept super cold, like minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit, in a sealed box with dry ice.
This suitcase-sized box, which they call a “thermal mailer”, contains between 1,000 and 5,000 cans. These custom thermal transmitters act as mobile freezers for clinics that do not have the special equipment required.
FedEx and UPS have been hired to safely transport the thermal shippers from Pfizer’s facilities in Michigan and Wisconsin in 64 states, territories and major cities across the country.
“We can serve any zip code in the United States,” said Smith. “That’s what our network was built for.”
The two shipping giants have decided to divide and conquer.
“FedEx and UPS have split the country in two,” said Wes Wheeler, president of UPS Global Healthcare. “We know exactly what states we are in, and they know what states they are in.”
We can serve any zip code in the United States of America. This is what our network was built for.
Executive Vice President of FedEx Express
Both companies have built their healthcare logistics business for years so they already have systems in place that enable special handling of fragile medical products, including freeze networks.
UPS and FedEx officials also assured a Senate transportation subcommittee on Thursday that they would be able to handle the influx of shipments, even though it coincided with the main shipping season. The two companies combined hired 170,000 additional employees to keep pace with demand. They said the vaccines would be given top priority in all shipments.
However, the distribution of the Pfizer vaccine will be different from anything previously tried.
“The vaccine distribution and implementation will be the most complex vaccination program ever attempted in human history,” said Dr. Kelly Moore, associate director, immunization education, Immunization Action Coalition.
How UPS plans to distribute the vaccine
Take the UPS supply chain.
Even before the FDA issued Pfizer’s emergency clearance, the company had begun shipping vaccine protection supplies such as needles, syringes, mixing vials and diluents, as well as protective equipment for healthcare workers.
UPS has also spent months building “freeze farms”, which are portable freezer units that can be stored subarctic, near strategic air hubs in the US and Europe.
Another change in the UPS vaccine supply chain? Increase in dry ice production. UPS now produces up to 1,200 pounds of dry ice per hour at its US facilities, which are distributed to administrative locations.
Shipping of the vaccine itself starts now.
Under the UPS distribution model, the cans are first transported from Pfizer’s storage facilities to their freezer farm in Louisville, Kentucky. From there, UPS loads the thermal shippers onto planes and trucks.
UPS Freezer Farm in Louisville, Kentucky
Aircraft carrying the vaccine from both the UPS and FedEx fleets will receive special benefits at airports. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grants these flights a priority land permit once they arrive at their destination.
The FAA has urged airports to prepare for the arrival of vaccines, even if they are not provided for aircraft diversions. They also urged airports to make sure they have enough staff to quickly clear any potential snowfall.
Ground transportation will also receive special treatment. Drivers wearing the vaccine will be given security escorts.
Note that delivery speed is of the essence. As soon as a box of cans is dispatched, the countdown clock starts.
Vaccines can be kept in Pfizer’s boxes for up to 30 days as long as the thermal transmitter is not opened more than twice a day, no longer than a minute each time. The dry ice must also be replenished every five days.
“I can assure you that I’ve never seen packaging so complicated,” said Wheeler. “I’m pretty confident, apart from some real, great damage, we’ll have a lot less spoilage than you think.”
Keep the vaccine in a safe place
Both UPS and FedEx will use high-tech tracking devices to monitor packages containing the vaccine to ensure both delivery speed and the safety of the product itself throughout its transit. These built-in systems detect movement, exposure, temperature and GPS.
Pfizer has also installed its own tracking system on these boxes. For example, as a third layer of protection, UPS will use its gold-level service labels on all vaccine and dry ice shipments. These are embedded with four trackers.
All of this data is then transmitted to command centers operated by UPS and Operation Warp Speed (OWS), the federal government’s crash program to quickly track a Covid vaccine.
“We have three options for viewing the packages through the system,” said Wheeler. “We watch the packages all day.”
Payment for the introduction of the vaccine
States and cities are concerned about what happens when the vaccine arrives on their doorsteps.
While the government has so far spent about $ 10 billion to develop the vaccine, states have only received $ 200 million from the CDC for distribution. Another $ 140 million should come in mid-December.
But that’s only a fraction of what the health departments think is necessary.
CDC director Robert Redfield told a Senate panel in September: “It will take anywhere between $ 5.5 [billion] to $ 6 billion to distribute this vaccine. It’s as urgent as setting up these manufacturing facilities. “
State health authorities have asked for more. They are demanding at least $ 8.4 billion for the distribution of Covid-19 vaccinations.
Distribution is happening as state and local governments are locked in cash more than ever due to the pandemic and lost tax revenue.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services previously told CNBC that the agency was working to “secure and distribute additional funds to the jurisdictions” for calendar year 2021 and beyond.