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FAA says first flight shipping coronavirus vaccine takes off

Dive Brief:

  • The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed the first flight to support mass shipment of a coronavirus vaccine took off Friday, according to an emailed statement from the agency dated Nov. 27.

 

  • The agency said it created an “air transport team” for coronavirus vaccines back in October and supported Friday’s flight, but didn’t provide details beyond saying it was assisting with transportation of an unspecified shot.

 

  • United Airlines began shuttling doses of Pfizer and BioNTech’s experimental vaccine on charter flights on Friday, according to The Wall Street Journal, which cited “people familiar with the matter.” United Airlines did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

 

Dive Insight:

Air cargo will play a vital role in the distribution of coronavirus vaccines and, with two shots now on the cusp of a potential authorization, cargo professionals at airports around the country have been preparing to handle shipments.

Clinical trials have shown vaccines from the team of Pfizer and BioNTech as well as from the biotech Moderna to be about 95% effective in preventing COVID-19. Both groups are asking the Food and Drug Administration, as well as other regulators around the world, for emergency approvals.

Pfizer told Supply Chain Dive this month that its distribution will rely on 20 flights taking off daily around the world. The drugmaker estimates it can make about 50 million doses of the vaccine this year.

DHL, one of the logistics companies that will be involved in distributing Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine, has been working with partners to determine capacity requirements, said Larry St Onge, an executive at DHL, prior to the FAA announcement.

“The capacity, I believe, will be there,” St Onge said.

While the pandemic grounded some passenger planes, those planes could be used for cargo and flown without passengers if capacity becomes an issue, he added.

Emir Pineda, a logistics manager at Miami International Airport, said the facility has been assessing its cold storage infrastructure and how much would be available for use with pharmaceuticals.

The airport started to assess its inventory, “to really map out what kind of facilities do we have that can contribute to the distribution of the COVID vaccine,” Pineda said.

American Airlines announced Monday it has been conducting trial flights between Miami and South America to prepare for the approval of a vaccine. American Airlines will be able to track the shipments as a result of IT upgrades it made last year, the company said.

“The trial flights stimulate the conditions required for the COVID-19 vaccine to stress test the thermal packaging and operational handling process that will ultimately ensure it remains stable as it moves across the globe,” the airline said.

In its statement, the FAA said it was working with manufacturers, air carriers and airports to provide guidance on transporting large quantities of dry ice, which is used to keep vaccine doses cold. Dry ice releases carbon dioxide gas, which limits the amount that can be carried on a plane.

Pfizer has designed a custom box for its vaccine that allows doses to be transported at the required minus 70 degrees Celsius for up to 10 days. The shipping container allows for the vaccine to be stored and refilled with dry ice as needed.

Moderna’s vaccine can be shipped at somewhat warmer temperatures of around minus 20 degrees Celsius. Once thawed, the company claims the shot can be kept stable at refrigerator temperatures for up to 30 days.

UPS said last week it was increasing its dry ice production capacity to 1,200 pounds per hour in the U.S. and Canada.