UPS and FedEx usually compete fiercely for business. Now, the rivals are working closely together to ship the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, the first of the vaccines to win U.S. government approval.
The two shipping companies said they had put the plans they had been working on for months into action after the Food and Drug Administration gave the vaccine emergency authorization late Friday.
At a news conference on Saturday, Gen. Gustave F. Perna, the chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to bring a vaccine to market, said that boxes were being packed at Pfizer’s plant in Kalamazoo, Mich., and would be shipped to UPS and FedEx distribution hubs, where they would be dispersed to 636 locations across the country. Pfizer said shipping would start early Sunday morning.
Mr. Perna specified that 145 sites would receive the vaccine on Monday, 425 on Tuesday and 66 on Wednesday.
“Make no mistake, distribution has begun,” he said.
In a statement on Saturday, UPS said it would transport doses of the vaccine from storage sites in Michigan and Wisconsin to its air cargo hub in Louisville, Ky. From there, the doses will be distributed to hospitals and other medical facilities using its Next Day Air service, arriving the day after leaving the Pfizer facilities.
“This is the moment of truth we’ve been waiting for,” Wes Wheeler, president of the company’s health care division, said in a statement. “The time has arrived to put the plan into action.”
Even before the vaccine was approved, UPS had started shipping out kits with the medical supplies needed to administer it, such as alcohol wipes and syringes, Mr. Wheeler told a Senate subcommittee this week. UPS and FedEx will split distribution of the vaccine throughout the country, he said. After those shipments arrive, all Pfizer dosing sites will receive another shipment from UPS of 40 pounds of extra dry ice to keep the vaccines at a frigid temperature.
“You have two fierce rivals here, and competitors, in FedEx and UPS, who literally are teaming up to get this delivered,” Richard Smith, a FedEx executive, told the Senate’s Subcommittee on Transportation and Safety on Thursday.
Both companies said the shipments would be closely tracked and monitored, and would be given priority over other packages. To ship its vaccine, Pfizer designed specialized containers packed with enough dry ice to keep a minimum of 975 doses cool for up to 10 days. Each comes with a tracking device.
UPS and FedEx said they would also affix their own tracking tags to vaccine shipments. And Mr. Wheeler told senators that each UPS truck carrying the doses will have a device that tracks its location, temperature, light exposure and motion. The company’s trucks will have escorts, too, he said. It is not clear whether he meant the local police or other government officials, or possibly private guards, and the company declined to specify.
The vaccine administration kits were assembled by McKesson, a medical supplier that was asked by federal authorities to act as a centralized distributor of the vaccines and supplies, such as syringes and alcohol wipes. Unlike Pfizer, Moderna, whose vaccine could be approved soon, plans to have McKesson package its vaccines alongside the supplies, Mr. Smith said.
In the case of Pfizer, UPS plans to deliver the kits — from a McKesson site in Kentucky — in advance of the vaccine, allowing it to identify any errors with addresses in its system, Mr. Wheeler said. The kits contain a syringe, a substance used to dilute the vaccines, personal protective equipment, instructions and mixing vials, he said.
Shippers have spent months upgrading cold storage infrastructure for the Pfizer vaccine, which must be stored at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. UPS, for example, has been installing ultralow-temperature freezer farms that are able to keep goods as cold as minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit near its air cargo hubs in the United States and Europe. It also plans to produce more than 24,000 pounds of dry ice per day at its hub in Louisville. FedEx has added ultracold freezers throughout its U.S. network, too.
Airlines have also been preparing to transport the vaccines, working with plane manufacturers and the Federal Aviation Administration to safely carry more dry ice than is typically allowed. UPS is also sending the agency a daily file of its flights so it can help prioritize them over others, Mr. Wheeler said. The company, he said, is in daily contact with officials involved in Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to accelerate vaccine development.
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