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The Covid vaccine’s long journey: How doses get from the manufacturing plant to your arm

  • Covid vaccines are transported by planes and trucks en route to millions of Americans.
  • The distribution involves complex logistics, from maintaining temperatures far below freezing and transporting them in special containers.
  • The shots are being doled out to people at hospitals and nursing homes and will ultimately be administered at neighborhood pharmacies and grocery stores.

Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine is pictured at Rady Children's Hospital before it's placed back in the refrigerator in San Diego, California on December 15, 2020.Adriana Drehsler | AFP | Getty Images

As the death toll from the coronavirus pandemic mounts in the U.S., the country finally has some reason for hope: Nurses, doctors, the elderly and other vulnerable people across America are getting the first Covid vaccine shots.

An army of pilots, delivery drivers and pharmacists last month started to ship, distribute and administer millions of vaccine doses. The small vials are traveling on airplanes and trucks, and some times inside of specially made hand-held coolers.

So far, two vaccines have been cleared by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use in the U.S.: those by PfizerBioNtech and Moderna. Several other drugmakers also have agreements to provide their vaccines to the federal government once they are approved. AstraZeneca's vaccine, developed with Oxford University, was just approved for emergency use in the U.K. but is still in clinical trials in the U.S.

The much-awaited vaccines — and whether they're distributed quickly, smoothly and widely — will help determine whether the U.S. can gain control of a virus that's killed more than 355,000 people across the country, overwhelmed hospitals and thrust the nation's economy into a recession.

UPS employees move one of two shipping containers containing the first shipments of the Pfizer and BioNTech Covid vaccine on a ramp at UPS Worldport in Louisville, Kentucky, on Sunday, December 13, 2020.Michael Clevenger | Getty Images

Health-care workers and nursing home residents were among the first to receive them in mid-December, followed by older Americans or those considered more at risk based on their job, age or medical conditions, depending on the state. The U.S. has distributed just over 17 million doses, and 4.8 million people have been given their first shot as of Tuesday — far short of the country's original goal of immunizing at least 20 million people by the end of 2020.

Eventually, the shots will be available to the general public at neighborhood pharmacies and grocery stores.

UPS employees move one of two shipping containers containing the first shipments of the Pfizer and BioNTech Covid vaccine inside a sorting facility at UPS Worldport on December 13, 2020 in Louisville, Kentucky.Michael Clevenger | Getty Images

Here's how that journey looks for the vaccines:

Loading planes & trucks

Within hours of the FDA's approval of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines last month, FedEx and United Parcel Service started shipping vials of doses. The logistics rivals teamed up and split deliveries by state, UPS Healthcare President Wes Wheeler told a Senate panel at a hearing last month.

Delivering coronavirus vaccines, however, isn't first time the companies have handled sensitive medical products. UPS provided logistical support throughout Pfizer's clinical trials. FedEx delivers flu vaccines every year and shipped over 80 million H1N1 vaccine doses in 2009, said Richard Smith, FedEx Express executive vice president.

FedEx and UPS trucks leave the loading dock of the Pfizer Global Supply manufacturing plant, in Portage, Michigan, U.S., December 13, 2020.Rebecca Cook | Reuters

"This is what we were built for, and we plan for things like this regularly," Smith told lawmakers. "Maybe not on this scale with all of the ins and outs, but we are well-versed in this type of planning."

Pfizer's vaccine is being transported in custom thermal shippers designed to keep the doses at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Each suitcase-sized box can hold 4,875 doses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The shippers also have a GPS-enabled thermal sensor.

Ensuring the vials are kept at the right temperature is a tricky process that's had to be adjusted along the way. U.S. officials quarantined several thousand doses of Pfizer's vaccine in California and Alabama in mid-December after an "anomaly" in the transportation process caused the storage temperature to get too cold.

After leaving Pfizer's storage sites in Michigan and Wisconsin, Covid vaccine shipments receive priority treatment, UPS and FedEx said.

UPS package handlers Jesirae Elzey and Demeatres Ralston unload boxes of Moderna's Covid vaccine at UPS Worldport, in Louisville, Kentucky, December 20, 2020.Michael Clevenger | Pool | Reuters

Vaccine packages that UPS delivers are given a gold priority label embedded with four trackers so the company can see the package as soon as it arrives at every destination. Each of its trucks also has a device that monitors its location, light exposure and temperature. Those vaccines are transferred to UPS' Worldport facilities in Louisville, Kentucky, where they are immediately expedited.

"We will see the package; it will get priority," Wheeler said. "It goes on the plane first. It comes off the plane first."

UPS created a 24/7 command center just for vaccine shipments where employees monitor the shipments and intercept a package if something goes wrong, Wheeler said. Similar to UPS, FedEx's "priority alert" team actively tracks the shipments using its own technology.

Boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the Pfizer Global Supply Kalamazoo manufacturing plant on December 13, 2020 in Portage, Michigan.Morry Gash | Getty Images

Passenger airlines also play a role. Even before Pfizer's vaccine was cleared by the FDA, United Airlines started shipping doses on Boeing 777s from Brussels, near the pharmaceutical giant's Belgium plant to the carrier's hub at Chicago O'Hare. They were taken by truck from the airport to Pfizer's plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan to position them for distribution.

American Airlines ran trial flights in November between Miami and South America to stress test thermal packaging and handling before it started shipping the vaccines.

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