The Chilly 50 Million: What It Takes to Get a Covid-19 Vaccine to You

This Christmas season, UPS and FedEx deliver more than just good humor and gifts. They deliver life-saving vaccines around the world. As I write this, hundreds of thousands of vaccines are being loaded onto trucks and planes to begin their journey to hospitals and care centers around the world. With the US joining the UK, Canada, Mexico and a handful of other countries that have approved the emergency use of Pfid vaccine Covid-19, the sales process is well underway.

UPS and FedEx have spent months preparing for vaccine distribution. This mammoth company requires synchronized logistics, know-how and resources. It’s worth taking a closer look at how this gigantic, heroic logistical feat will be achieved as we round out this year and make our way into 2021.

A unique application for cold chain logistics

Normal delivery tactics and processes will not cut it for the specific transit conditions required for the vaccine. Pfizer’s vaccine has to be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius and that of Moderna at minus 20 degrees Celsius. Fortunately, both UPS and FedEx have made significant infrastructure investments to support the safe storage of vaccines in transit.

A gradual distribution process

How is a vaccine safely transported from its original facility to its final destination? Let’s consider one possible scenario for the Pfizer vaccine using the UPS delivery infrastructure and innovations.

  • Pfizer manufactures the vaccine in Kalamazoo, Michigan (and a facility in Puurs, Belgium).

  • When the vaccines are ready to be distributed, they are placed in cool boxes that can hold nearly 5,000 doses. They are filled with dry ice and placed on UPS trucks for shorter distances.

  • Many will drive five and a half hours to a new UPS freezer farm next to the UPS Air Hub in Louisville, Kentucky. This freezer farm was recently built by UPS in addition to one in the Netherlands and can hold tens of millions of vaccine bottles at temperatures as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius. UPS also buys freezers for South America, Frankfurt and the UK

  • From there, the vaccines will be tied into UPS planes to find their way around the world in a day or less. For example, FedEx has an aircraft fleet of 600 and 90 cold rooms worldwide.

  • Eventually, the vaccines are put back on trucks on their way to their final destinations: hospitals and care centers.

  • There, the care providers will use a type of short-term cooling system, such as the ULT (Ultra-Low Temperature) freezers that UPS is working on with Stirling Ultracold for smaller care facilities. The vaccines will remain in these freezers for a few days before they are administered.

Delivering the Covid-19 vaccine is critical to our ability to get back to normal. This means reopening businesses, sending kids back to school, reconnecting with friends and families, and many more important parts of life that we largely missed out on over the past year. The logistics industry is ready to do its part to ensure that the vaccine reaches recipients quickly and safely and accelerates our path to normal.

“This will truly be a historic achievement in the supply chain to deliver millions, if not billions, of life-saving Covid-19 vaccine bottles to vast populations of the world,” Wes Wheeler, UPS Healthcare president, told Bloomberg last summer. “Life will depend on us to get these vaccine missions right and we are well prepared to support all of these efforts until this pandemic is behind us.”

This year has been full of unprecedented strangers. As we watch many of these unknowns come to a head in the final weeks of 2020, I believe in the human ability to get us back to normal. With a strong performance from the airlines backing the busy season and the vaccine distribution at the end of the fourth quarter, we could have the happy vacation (and 2021) we have been longing for.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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