The Covid vaccine will be delivered safely and on time throughout the US, the nation’s top shipping executives and vaccine distribution planners have reassured lawmakers and the public in recent days.
The first wave of doses of the coronavirus vaccine – produced by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer – is set to ship out across the US as early next week to be pumped into the arms of healthcare workers and nursing home patients.
Public health officials and logistics planners working to execute the Trump administration’s vaccine distribution plan have been dogged by concerns and media reports about everything that could conceivably go wrong: from shipping delays due to staff shortages at courier services, to a potential nationwide shortage in dry ice used to store vaccine doses while in transit, to complete lapses in the supply of a vaccine due to international competition for a finite number of doses.
Those concerns – while important to acknowledge and guard against – are not likely to bear out, experts have said.
“We’ve said throughout this that there will be no higher priority shipments in our network than these vaccine shipments. So they will have the highest priority of anything we carry in all of our FedEx networks, but certainly in the FedEx Express system that will be carrying them,” FexEx Express executive vice president Richard Smith said at a hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Mr Smith answered senators’ questions on Thursday alongside Wesley Wheeler, the president of global healthcare at FedEx’s top competitor, the United Parcel Service (UPS).
While many congressional committee hearings devolve into partisan bickering and grandstanding, Thursday’s affair was more collaborative between the witnesses and lawmakers, with lawmakers seeking final assurances before the vaccine distribution plan is put into effect.
Both shipping services have developed GPS-enabled packaging labels and tracking devices that allow them to monitor specific packages’ progress and signal to workers unloading cargo from planes and trucks that these packages take priority.
“It goes on, it goes on the plane first, it comes off the plane first,” Mr Wheeler of UPS explained to GOP Chairwoman Deb Fischer of Nebraska.
All while that’s happening, Pfizer and the shipping giants will be providing realtime data to government officials with Operation Warp Speed – the administration’s nickname for the vaccine programme – about quality control and delivery timing.
“When the packages leave Kalamazoo, Michigan, or one of the locations of the vaccine manufacturers, the trucks will have a century device. This is a GPS tracker that also gives temperature, that gives light exposure and motion. So it gives us a lot of data. And Pfizer is also providing data from their own packages. So we have three ways of looking at the packages through the system,” Mr Smith said.
“All that data streams into our command center, and we transmit that data to Operation Warp Speed, so we are all watching the packages, all day long,” he said.
Both FedEx and UPS have hired hundreds of thousands of extra workers for the so-called “peak season” around the holidays as they do ever year to keep up with the uptick in delivery orders around December.
Unlike in other years, however, FedEx and UPS plan to hold onto many of those peak season workers to help with the ongoing rollout of the vaccine distribution.
“We staff up, just like UPS does for peak. We hire a lot of new team members during peak. We know that as the vaccines come on and ramp up we will continue operating at elevated levels post peak but we’re confident we have the team members in place, and we’ll maintain and a lot of those team members that we’ve staffed up for peak to continue with this vaccine distribution beyond,” Mr Smith said.
As for quality control, both men assured senators that there would be no shortage in dry ice to keep vaccine doses properly frozen so they don’t spoil in transit. Forbes and several other outlets have reported that some outside observers are concerned about whether the US has enough supply of the refrigerant to keep distribution plans on schedule.
Pfizer’s vaccine must be stored below minus-70 degrees Celsius, colder than the temperature in Antarctica. The Moderna vaccine that is expected to get approval for distribution next must be stored below minus-20 degrees Celsius.
Mr Wheeler explained that both FedEx and UPS have longtime partnerships with third-party dry ice manufacturers they are confident have the supply to distribute 100m doses of the Pfizer vaccine over the coming months.
UPS has also built its own dry ice manufacturing plant in Kentucky, which Mr Wheeler expects to produce a surplus.
“We now have the contingency dry ice, and we are able, if we have extra dry ice – and I’m sure we will – we can provide that to independent hospitals and clinics around the… country,” the UPS executive said in response to a question from Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
Mr Smith added: “There’s plenty of dry ice out there.”