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United Airlines Announces Plan to Distribute COVID-19 Vaccine

United Airlines Announces Plan to Distribute COVID-19 Vaccine


United Airlines reported today it would cooperate with pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to distribute its new vaccine for COVID-19 through charter flights between Brussels and Chicago. These flights are the first of many to distribute the vaccine all over the United States in the coming months. The FAA has given United (and only United) permission to transport the vaccine in mass quantities via aircraft. A challenge unique to the COVID vaccine is the fact that it must be stored at -104 F (-76 C), which would require an enormous amount of dry ice, which can only be stored in a limited amount onboard airplanes. However, the FAA has also extended the amount of dry ice United may store to 15,000 pounds, approximately five times the amount normally permitted. Though Pfizer has not released more details on the distribution plan, they will reportedly provide specialized suitcases to transport the dry ice and vaccine. When distribution will begin also remains unclear, as the vaccine still requires FDA approval. 


Photo of N225UA - United Airlines Boeing 777-200 at IAD
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, United Airlines has used cargo as an alternate source of revenue, operating cargo-only flights using its' Boeing 777 and 787 fleets.  Credit: Jack Goldberg


On its website, Pfizer touts its “thermal shippers” as extremely effective for transporting the vaccine, which will allow the vials of the vaccine to last an extra 20 days. GPS and thermal sensors will also be attached to the shipments. Upon arriving on American soil, the vaccine doses, produced mostly by German company BioNtech, will be shipped by both land and air from Chicago and a second existing distribution center in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. Further complications exist because the vaccine requires two doses. Pfizer also has three other vaccine production sites which may be used in tandem with United: St. Louis, Mo., Kalamazoo, Mich., and Landover, Md., alongside its current main plant in Puurs, Belgium, not far from Antwerp. In particular, the Maryland location is located less than an hour away from United's existing hub at Washington Dulles Airport, which could also take a major role in future distribution.


Pfizer is not the only company courting airlines in order to distribute vaccines and be recognized as the frontrunners in the battle against COVID-19. American Airlines's recent test flights between Miami and South America were not aimed at travelers: they were testing thermal capacity across warm-weather environments, according to the Wall Street Journal. The United States’ remaining major airlines: American, Delta, FedEx, and UPS, are likely to take a major role in chartering future flights to transport the vaccine. Other companies developing vaccines that are likely to make a similar deal with an airline soon include Moderna of Cambridge, Mass., Johnson, and Johnson of New Brunswick, N.J., and AstraZeneca of Cambridge, England. All three are likely to make similar appeals to both the FDA and the FAA soon. 


An example of a United Airlines Boeing 777 is depicted here.  Credit: Daniel Mena


On November 28th, NBC News reported that the first doses of Pfizer's vaccine touched down at O'Hare Airport in Chicago. The vials were transported using the dry ice "thermal shippers" onboard a United Airlines' Boeing 777. United’s leadership would not mention any details but stated they were ready to assist in distributing the vaccine worldwide. The 15,000 pounds of dry ice were also transported without issue. This marks the first major transport of any COVID-19 vaccine so far.


What are your thoughts regarding United Airlines' distribution of vaccines on behalf of Pfizer?  Which airlines' do you believe will conduct similar distribution for pharmaceutical companies?









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