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Months of planning and investment to update cold chain capabilities has all lead up to this: the first shipments of Pfizer’s Covid vaccine across the country. CNBC’s Frank Holland reports from the heart of UPS’s World Port air operations. where the first plane carrying the vaccine landed on Sunday morning. For access to live and exclusive video from CNBC subscribe to CNBC PRO: https://cnb.cx/2NGeIvi

The U.S. government is prepping millions of doses of Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for shipment to sites across the nation, a mammoth logistical undertaking in support of what may be the most complex immunization program in history.
Take the UPS supply chain.

Even before the FDA granted Pfizer emergency approval, the company had already begun to ship out inoculation supplies, such as needles, syringes, mixing vials, and diluent, in addition to protective gear for health-care workers.

UPS has also spent months building “freezer farms,” consisting of portable freezer units capable of subarctic storage, near strategic air hubs in the U.S. and Europe.

Another change to the UPS vaccine supply chain? Ramping up the production of dry ice. UPS is now making up to 1,200 lbs of dry ice per hour in its U.S. facilities, which will be distributed to administration sites.

As for shipping the vaccine itself, that work begins now.

Under the UPS distribution model, doses are first transported from Pfizer storage sites to its freezer farm in Louisville, Kentucky. From there, UPS will load the thermal shippers onto planes and trucks.

Planes carrying the vaccine from both the UPS and FedEx fleet will see special perks at airports. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will grant these flights priority clearance to land as soon as they arrive at their destination.

The FAA has urged airports to prepare for vaccine arrivals, even if they are not slated to receive them, in the case of aircraft diversions. They also told airports to ensure they have enough personnel to quickly clear potential snowfall.

Ground transport will similarly receive special treatment. Drivers carrying the vaccine will be provided security escorts.

Keep in mind, speed of delivery is critical. The moment a box of doses is shipped, the countdown clock begins.

Vaccines can last for up to thirty days in Pfizer’s boxes, so long as the thermal shipper is not opened more than twice in a day, for no longer than a minute each time. The dry ice also needs to be replenished every five days.

“I can assure you that I’ve never seen packaging quite that complicated before,” Wheeler said. “I’m pretty confident, aside from real, big damage, that we’re going to have a lot less spoilage than you think.”

Both UPS and FedEx will use high-tech tracking devices to monitor packages carrying the vaccine, both to ensure speed of delivery and the safety of the product itself, throughout transport. These built-in systems will detect motion, light exposure, as well as temperature and GPS.

Pfizer has also installed its own tracking system on these boxes, and as a third layer of protection, UPS, for example, will be using its Gold-level service labels on all vaccine and dry ice shipments. These are embedded with four trackers.

All of this data will then stream into command centers run by UPS and Operation Warp Speed (OWS), the federal government’s crash program to fast track a Covid vaccine.

“We have three ways of looking at the packages through the system,” said Wheeler. “We are watching the packages all day long.”

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