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December 15, 2020 1:15 PM, EST

Trucks Carry First Doses of COVID-19 Vaccine to Hospitals Across the US

UPS truck leaves PfizerA UPS truck loaded with COVID-19 vaccine leaves the Pfizer Global Supply Kalamazoo manufacturing plant on Dec. 13. (Morry Gash/Pool/Associated Press)

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As the first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine begin to ship, trucking experts on the ground level of the distribution effort said the logistical elements are in place for a successful rollout of an estimated 50 million doses of the vaccine between now and the end of January.

“We have dedicated and hardworking people around the world who have been trained to store, handle, transport and deliver vaccines,” UPS Inc. CEO Carol Tomé said. “We’re pleased to support our health care partners with smart, efficient logistics for these vaccines that will protect communities and save lives.”

Operation Warp Speed is the federal joint effort between government and private industry to develop and distribute a COVID-19 vaccine. The initial distribution phase began at the Kalamazoo, Mich., Pfizer plant, where the vaccine — co-developed by pharmaceutical firms Pfizer and BioNTech SE — was moved by truck and air to UPS and FedEx distribution hubs and then on to 636 locations across the country. Atlanta-based UPS has set up a special 24/7 command center at its Worldport aviation hub in Louisville, Ky.

FedEx truck leaves Pfizer

A FedEx truck loaded with COVID-19 vaccine leaves the Pfizer Global Supply Kalamazoo manufacturing plant on Dec. 13. (Morry Gash/Pool/Associated Press)

“Vaccine distribution is a key part of moving our world forward by delivering what matters,” Tomé said.

Massachusetts-based Boyle Transportation specializes in transporting medical supplies, and is a subcontractor assisting UPS in the transportation effort. Some of the company’s trucks were at the Pfizer facility as the initial vaccine distribution began Dec. 13. Company co-president Andrew Boyle told Transport Topics his company is proud to play a role.

“There have been heroic efforts by the drug developers, the clinical trial participants and the regulators to get this far, but the execution will rely in large part on blue-collar transportation and logistics professionals,” he said. “These are people at the loading docks, the professional truck drivers, the airfreight handlers, the package sorters, the delivery drivers. All the people we work with and represent will play a vital role, and they’re patriots, and they’re proud to help.”

Leadership of Memphis, Tenn.-based FedEx Corp. said the company has never done anything more critical than this.

“This is among the most important work in the history of our company, and we’re honored to be a part of the effort to help end this pandemic,” FedEx CEO Raj Subramaniam said. “I am immensely proud of our dedicated team members who continue to go above and beyond to help ensure the safe movement of these critical COVID-19 vaccines. This is who we are and what we do at FedEx.”

FedEx in this initial phase is handling Western states and UPS is focused on Eastern states.

UPS ranks No. 1 and FedEx No. 2 on the Transport Topics list of the Top 100 largest for-hire carriers in North America.

On Dec. 15 the Food and Drug Administration posted a report that indicated a vaccine from pharmaceutical firm Moderna is 94% effective. According to Bloomberg, an FDA advisory board has scheduled a Dec. 17 meeting to vote on whether to recommend authorization of the vaccine to the agency. The FDA on Dec. 11 authorized the Pfizer and BioNTech SE vaccine after an advisory panel voted to support its authorization.

“The next step is the Moderna vaccine, and we know we will ship just a little bit short of 6 million doses to the American people,” said Gen. Gustave Perna, chief operations officer of Operation Warp Speed, during a Dec. 14 news briefing. “We’re shipping it to 3,285 locations across the country. It will be a very similar cadence to what we executed this week with Pfizer.”

Boyle said his company plans to stay involved with multiple manufacturers.

Walmart also is playing a role in the distribution effort; the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer is training employees at its more than 5,000 Walmart and Sam’s Club pharmacies on how to safely handle and administer the vaccine.

“With 90% of the American population living within 10 miles of a Walmart, we will play an important part in making sure those who want a vaccine can get one when they are eligible based on their state’s prioritization, especially those in hard-to-reach parts of the country that have recently been hit hard by the epidemic,” Walmart Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tom Van Gilder said.

Walmart ranks No. 3 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest private carriers in North America.

“I expect that this rollout will work reasonably well,” University of Minnesota-Morris economist and trucking expert Stephen Burks told TT. “I absolutely believe there will be glitches, but it’s looking pretty promising. This has been in the planning stages for a long time, and the distribution strategy is sensible.”

Burks himself is recovering from a severe case of COVID-19, and said he is anxious to see the trucking and logistics industry move the vaccine safely. “I am cautiously optimistic. So far, so good,” Burks said.

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