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For the trucking and logistics industry, the challenges of COVID-19 vaccine distribution are just beginning. Hundreds of millions of doses will need to be shipped around the world and in the United States, and the process is just now getting underway.
On Dec. 11, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and distribution began Dec. 13. The first doses of the vaccine — which requires two shots taken 21 days apart — have been approved and distributed in the United Kingdom.
DHL Life Sciences and Health Care President Larry St Onge told Transport Topics he expected the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to be the first available in the U.S. Others, from companies including Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, may be coming soon.
“I believe we will see several vaccines arrive in or around the first quarter with the vaccine manufacturers following the same blueprint that Pfizer has enacted,” St Onge said. “Once they’ve gotten approval, they’ll start to ship the initial amount that they manufactured. It’s not going to happen overnight. But, we’re all looking at the networks and what steps we need to take.”
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine will be transported by truck or plane to hospitals, clinics and other locations in specially designed containers from the company’s Kalamazoo, Mich., manufacturing plant. Each container can carry 1,000 doses packed in 50 pounds of dry ice, and the cargo must be kept at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit — about the temperature of an average winter’s night at the South Pole.
In November, Pfizer said it would work exclusively with DHL, UPS Inc. and FedEx Corp. to transport the vaccine. All three companies are ramping up their usage of ultracold freezers to keep the vaccine usable.
Moderna’s vaccine does not require similarly extreme temperatures; it can be shipped in regular refrigeration units.
UPS ranks No. 1 and FedEx is No. 2 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.
St Onge said the global vaccine distribution campaign represents one of the most significant logistical challenges the world has seen in decades, and he expects competitors in the logistics industry will work together to get the job done.
“Being able to move this vaccine around the world is going to take a lot of pre-planning and forethought,” he said. “It’s not unforeseen that I will be chartering an airplane and sharing that capacity with the competition. We may have multiple vaccine manufacturers shipping to the same location. I may do business with one, and a competitor may be working with the other. But at the end of the day, we understand the moral imperative and the ultimate objective to get back to some state of normalcy.”
There are concerns that, at least initially, the U.S. may not have enough vaccine doses to go around. As part of Operation Warp Speed, the Trump administration purchased 100 million doses each of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Both require two doses per person. However, the U.S. has reserved a total of 800 million doses from six pharmaceutical companies, including the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech orders. So far, the effectiveness of other vaccines now under development is unclear.
President-elect Joe Biden said he wants to get 100 million Americans vaccinated in the first 100 days of his new administration.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University Medical Center, told TT the speed at which pharmaceutical companies have developed a safe vaccine — less than 10 months — is unparalleled in history.
“I will take this vaccine today if I could,” he said. “So far, it looks very safe, it looks pretty effective, and I think it’s very important we try to get this under control for our own individual health reasons as well as our communities and society.”
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