Months before anyone knew which of the coronavirus vaccine candidates would prevail or when it would be available, airlines were trying to figure out how to move cans around the world.
During the summer, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines spoke to government officials, pharmaceutical companies, and experts to understand where vaccines could be made, how they would be shipped, and how best to position people and planes to keep them moving bring. More recently, they have been flying batches of vaccines to use in studies and research, or to prepare for wider dissemination.
The industry will play an important role in getting billions of doses on board hundreds of flights in the coming months, getting underutilized planes and crews to work, and circulating the very drugs that airlines hope will that they get people to book tickets again. The flights, however, represent only one segment of a massive global relay race that requires airlines to be operational immediately.
"If a request comes in, it will be urgent and we must act immediately," said Manu Jacobs, who oversees the shipping of pharmaceuticals and other specialty products for United.
A Food and Drug Administration vaccine advisory board will meet Thursday to decide whether the agency should issue an emergency clearance for the Pfizer vaccine. Another vaccine made by Moderna is expected to be reviewed next week. Once either is authorized, shipping is expected to begin in earnest.
One of the biggest challenges airlines faced was making sure vaccines were shipped in freezing temperatures. Pfizers need to be stored at an incredibly low minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Moderna is easier to manage with a minus of 4 degrees.
Pfizer has developed special cooling containers for the vaccine that can be filled with dry ice, solid carbon dioxide. However, aviation authorities limit how much dry ice can be carried on airplanes because it turns into gas, making the air potentially toxic to pilots and crews.
After United ran tests that showed it was safe, United last month urged the Federal Aviation Administration to raise the limit so that the Pfizer vaccine, according to an F.A.A. from Brussels International Airport to Chicago O & # 39; Hare International Airport. Letter. The agency agreed and allowed the airline to carry up to 15,000 pounds of dry ice on board a Boeing 777-224 aircraft, compared to the previous limit of 3,000 pounds. A single 777 can carry up to a million cans, the airline said.
American and Delta are also working with the agency to increase dry ice limits on vaccine shipping. And Boeing said it worked closely with passenger and cargo companies and global regulators to safely ship as many vaccines as possible. In service letters, online symposia, and phone calls, the aircraft manufacturer shared its own findings on dry ice emission rates and key safety practices. Boeing also said it was working with other aerospace companies on guidelines they could give airlines.
United declined to comment on its work with Pfizer but said it had laid the groundwork for vaccine shipping since the summer, which involved putting together teams from across the company and around the world.
"We decided very quickly that we had to get some smart people together to think about how to prepare," said Jacobs.
The scale and urgency of the spread of the coronavirus vaccine is unlike anything airlines and other logistics companies have seen before. The shipping giant UPS has installed ultra-low temperature freezers near its air freight centers in the US and Europe, capable of keeping goods as low as minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit. The company's health branch has also increased dry ice production. In the US, facilities can produce up to £ 1,200 an hour. FedEx has also added ultra-cold freezers to its US network. And both companies have enormous fleets of cargo planes that can be used to carry the vaccines.
In normal times, around half of all air cargo is carried by airlines, often under the feet of passengers. The sharp drop in flights this spring has lost much of that capacity, but the urgent need for masks, gloves, and ventilators has presented a great opportunity for cash-strapped passengers to reclaim at least part of the lost business. Many airlines, including United, American, Lufthansa, and Virgin Atlantic, began flights just to carry cargo, and some went so far as to strap boxes and goods into the seats that passengers normally sit on.
Now airlines are preparing for flights only with vaccines: planes full of freezers or fridges and a skeletal crew of pilots and crew members to secure and monitor the precious cargo.
American Airlines conducted a series of test flights from Miami to South America in mid-November to test the thermal packaging and their own handling methods. It has also shipped vaccine trial shipments around the world. Other preparations are critical, but more mundane. This includes drawing up the certifications and permits to move the goods, making sure the vaccine is delivered at the right time, and making sure the aircraft you need are in the right place at the right time.
The road to a coronavirus vaccine ›
Answers to your vaccine questions
As the coronavirus vaccine nears U.S. approval, here are some questions you may be wondering about:
- If I live in the US, when can I get the vaccine? While the exact order of vaccine recipients may vary from state to state, most doctors and residents of long-term care facilities will come first. If you want to understand how this decision is made, this article will help.
- When can I get back to normal life after the vaccination? Life will only get back to normal once society as a whole receives adequate protection against the coronavirus. Once countries approve a vaccine, they can only vaccinate a few percent of their citizens in the first few months. The unvaccinated majority remain susceptible to infection. A growing number of coronavirus vaccines show robust protection against disease. However, it is also possible for people to spread the virus without knowing they are infected because they have mild or no symptoms. Scientists don't yet know whether the vaccines will also block the transmission of the coronavirus. Even vaccinated people have to wear masks for the time being, avoid the crowds indoors and so on. Once enough people are vaccinated, it becomes very difficult for the coronavirus to find people at risk to become infected. Depending on how quickly we as a society achieve this goal, life could approach a normal state in autumn 2021.
- Do I still have to wear a mask after the vaccination? Yeah, but not forever. The two vaccines that may be approved this month clearly protect people from contracting Covid-19. However, the clinical trials that produced these results were not designed to determine whether vaccinated people could still spread the coronavirus without developing symptoms. That remains a possibility. We know that people who are naturally infected with the coronavirus can spread it while they don't have a cough or other symptoms. Researchers will study this question intensively when the vaccines are introduced. In the meantime, self-vaccinated people need to think of themselves as potential spreaders.
- Will it hurt What are the side effects? The vaccine against Pfizer and BioNTech, like other typical vaccines, is delivered as a shot in the arm. The injection is no different from the ones you received before. Tens of thousands of people have already received the vaccines, and none of them have reported serious health problems. However, some of them have experienced short-lived symptoms, including pain and flu-like symptoms that usually last a day. It's possible that after the second shot, people will have to plan to take a day off or go to school. While these experiences are not pleasant, they are a good sign: they are the result of your own immune system's encounter with the vaccine and a strong reaction that ensures lasting immunity.
- Will mRNA vaccines change my genes? No. Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use a genetic molecule to boost the immune system. This molecule, known as mRNA, is eventually destroyed by the body. The mRNA is packaged in an oily bubble that can fuse with a cell, allowing the molecule to slide inside. The cell uses the mRNA to make proteins from the coronavirus that can stimulate the immune system. At any point in time, each of our cells can contain hundreds of thousands of mRNA molecules that they produce to make their own proteins. As soon as these proteins are made, our cells use special enzymes to break down the mRNA. The mRNA molecules that our cells make can only survive a few minutes. The mRNA in vaccines is engineered to withstand the cell's enzymes a little longer, so the cells can make extra viral proteins and trigger a stronger immune response. However, the mRNA can hold for a few days at most before it is destroyed.
"We believe that every single player in this industry – not just the aviation industry, but the logistics industry in the supply chain – can do this," said Jessica Tyler, president of cargo at American Airlines.
Airlines have experience shipping the flu vaccine, and the industry has done more pharmaceutical business in recent years. For example, in 2015 American built a 25,000-square-foot warehouse at its Philadelphia International Airport hub dedicated to cold storage of pharmaceuticals. This warehouse, which is monitored around the clock, can store shipments in temperatures as low as minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit and is the largest of a handful of such facilities the airline operates at half a dozen airports in the United States and Europe. Delta and United operate similar cooling networks.
When it comes to freight, airlines typically work with "freight forwarders", intermediaries who organize shipping on behalf of customers such as pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors. With the vaccine, in some cases, carriers expect direct collaboration with these customers as there is an urgent need to get the vaccine where it is needed.
American and Delta are partnering with McKesson, a major medical supplier that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention turned into something of a centralized distributor for coronavirus vaccines this summer. According to Rob Walpole, vice president of Delta Cargo, every major vaccine manufacturer except Pfizer has announced that it will use McKesson to distribute its product in the United States.
Since August, Delta has been shipping vaccine trial shipments, test kits and other products to the Americas in both the US and Belgium and Latin America, Walpole said on a call with reporters this month. The airline has also set up a special “vaccine control tower” to track and coordinate shipments.
While the influx of dry ice has posed a challenge for airlines, the speed at which vaccines have arrived is also a challenge, he said.
"As with a lot of things this year, there is an unprecedented intensity and amount of change that has taken place in the past two months," said Walpole. "That has tested everyone connected with it."