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Logistical Challenges in Shipping COVID-19 Vaccine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

With coronavirus vaccines closer to being authorized, the logistical challenge is transporting and distributing those vaccines quickly worldwide. As NPR's David Schaper reports, it's a complicated process.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Dr. Kate O'Brien is the World Health Organization's head of immunizations and vaccines. She compares distributing COVID-19 vaccines to climbing the world's tallest mountain.

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KATE O'BRIEN: Developing the vaccines and getting them licensed is like building base camp at the bottom of Everest. And actually getting to the peak is the delivery part.

SCHAPER: That's right. She says developing vaccines was the easy part, while transporting them...

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O'BRIEN: There is going to be a struggle, frankly, in every country about how to do this quickly.

SCHAPER: Hani Mahmassani runs Northwestern University Transportation Center, and he puts it this way.

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HANI MAHMASSANI: As a logistical operation, this really is unprecedented in terms of its scale, in terms of its magnitude and in terms of its urgency.

SCHAPER: Mahmassani says the first vaccine in line for authorization developed by Pfizer must be stored and shipped at temperatures below minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit.

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MAHMASSANI: So that requires speed in moving. But it also requires a sort of minimizing the number of handoffs because you have a limited shelf life.

SCHAPER: And when transporting it from coast to coast or overseas, there's one mode of transportation in particular that stands out.

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CHRIS BUSCH: There's no replacing the speed of an airplane.

SCHAPER: Chris Busch is managing director of cargo in the Americas for United Airlines, which has secured FAA approval to operate charter flights carrying Pfizer vaccines from Brussels to Chicago's O'Hare Airport. But Busch says doing so requires special accommodations.

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BUSCH: Probably the biggest thing that we had to focus on is dry ice. So one way to keep things at that extremely low temperature is dry ice. And dry ice is a dangerous good.

SCHAPER: After taking steps to monitor carbon dioxide gas levels in the aircraft, the FAA's now allowing United and other airlines to carry up to 15,000 pounds of dry ice, five times the previous maximum, which could allow for up to 1 million doses per flight. Busch says United has also changed its cargo handling process to get Pfizer's special freezer containers off the plane quickly.

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BUSCH: Here in Chicago, for instance, what we do is we park the aircraft directly behind our cargo facility. And by doing that, it significantly reduces the amount of time that it takes us to bring that piece of freight from the airplane through our warehouse and onto a waiting truck.

SCHAPER: United has already flown at least one shipment of Pfizer's vaccine. American Airlines is conducting trial flights with its pharmaceutical and cargo partners from Miami to South America. It also has a 25,000-square-foot storage facility in Philadelphia that could keep shipments frozen down to minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature needed for a Moderna vaccine that is nearing federal authorization.

Delta is also expanding its cold storage facilities and running test flights, as are other airlines. But the major players in transporting and distributing vaccines will be companies like UPS and FedEx, especially once the vaccines are on the ground.

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RICHARD SMITH: We have the capability to serve every zip code in the United States of America. We do it every day.

SCHAPER: That's FedEx Express executive Richard Smith in a Senate hearing yesterday on the logistics of transporting coronavirus vaccines.

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SMITH: Whether you live in Chicago, Ill., or Murdo, S.D., we're able to ensure time-definite deliveries of these shipments.

SCHAPER: UPS and FedEx officials say they'll essentially split the country in half, with each company focusing on different states in order to speed the delivery of COVID vaccines nationwide.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.