Two coronavirus vaccines are in line to be authorized for emergency use in the United States, and a massive transportation network is standing at the ready once they receive government clearance.
The delicate, mind-boggling logistics of distributing the vaccines will be crucial. The challenges of moving millions of doses — over thousands of miles and under strict temperature specifications — are enormous.
Here’s what we know about how vaccines will be physically transported from drug manufacturers to medical facilities around the world.
The first 24 hours
Within 24 hours of an emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration, manufacturers and shippers are prepared to activate the delivery chain — a complex system of warehouses, trucks, planes, and, ultimately, delivery to the site where shots are administered.
The planning, dry runs, and stockpiling is already underway.
“We’re moving all of the needles, the syringes, the other parts and pieces to include the alcohol wipes and necessary [supplies] in order to administer these vaccines,” said Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, the director of supply, production and distribution for Operation Warp Speed, the US government’s effort to develop a Covid-19 vaccine.
Pfizer is stockpiling an undisclosed number of vaccine doses in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
Once the vaccine is authorized, Pfizer doses will be packed into trucks and much of it sent to airports to be loaded onto planes.
The distribution of Moderna vaccines is set to be handled by the medical supply company McKesson.
“It’s a really quick process, simply putting together the packages on dry ice and shipping them out,” Ostrowski said of the Pfizer vaccine.
Trucks will ferry the vaccines to planes that will deliver them around the country.
There are two ways to keep the vaccines cold in transit: Active cooling containers and passive cooling containers.
Active containers use batteries and a cooling system to keep the contents cold. The containers are charged while they’re on the ground, then the battery system kicks in while they’re in transit. Temperature-sensing devices in the actively cooled containers also have the capability send an alert if the temperature deviates — even slightly, by a quarter of a degree — outside of the approved range.
Passive containers are packed with ice packs or dry ice, depending on how cold it needs to be and how long the trip is. Typically, if the route has more than one stop, these containers will move to cold storage facilities between legs of the trip.
Dry ice can pose its own risk in large quantities. Regulators typically have strict weight limits for dry ice on flights because it releases carbon carbon that “can cause aircrew incapacitation.” But airlines say regulators are easing those restrictions slightly for vaccine distribution.
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