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The Logistics of Transporting the COVID-19 Vaccine

After a difficult year, the development and authorization of two vaccines that are 95 percent effective against COVID-19 offer much-needed hope, potentially marking the beginning of the pandemic’s end. While this is an extraordinary development, the next phase of the process--distribution of the vaccines developed by Pfizer and Moderna--presents some unprecedented challenges for logistics companies, airlines, and state and local governments. A logistics expert referred to the challenge as “a cross-organizational effort like none that’s been seen from a logistics standpoint.”

Logistic Challenges the Vaccine Presents

Given the unique difficulties vaccine distribution presents, the Senate Commerce subcommittee on Transportation held a hearing on December 10, 2020, to discuss the logistics of distributing the vaccine.

One of the first challenges, not surprisingly, is the sheer quantity of doses that need to be distributed. The United States alone is planning to distribute 20 million doses in December, 60 million doses in January, and 100 million doses in February. This issue is complicated by the fact that each of the two vaccines requires 2 doses, meaning that the United States will need to distribute around 510 million doses in the coming months. It’s a vaccination effort on an unprecedented scale.

A second major challenge is keeping up the cold chain during distribution. The Pfizer vaccine needs to be kept at -94 degrees Fahrenheit while the Moderna vaccine needs to be kept at -4 degrees Fahrenheit. Obviously, this requires extensive planning for trucking companies, airlines, and government agencies.

How Challenges are Being Addressed

During the hearing on December 10, executives from FedEx and UPS both spoke about their readiness for distribution. Both entities testified that their teams have been preparing for months. For example, both FedEx and UPS have prepared with the use of tracking devices to monitor both the location and condition of vaccines in addition to having teams focus solely on the vaccine and thermal containers or “freezer farms” to maintain the cold chain.

Distribution of the vaccine also presents unique challenges for airlines, particularly given the challenges of the last year that have led to reduced teams and decreased revenue. Nevertheless, major US airlines have already taken steps to make sure they’re ready.

Delta Airlines has created cooler facilities in Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York, and Seattle, and American Airlines has started running trial vaccine flights. Currently, the FAA is allowing United Airlines to carry five times the permitted amount of dry ice as it transports the Pfizer vaccine from Brussels to Chicago.


“From now until the last dose is delivered, we need to be flexible,” Senator Deb Fischer (R-NE) advises. “There will be hiccups and delays. I have no doubt that we can get this done but it will take many different agencies, businesses, and state and local governments working in unison to do it well.”

The last year has been a difficult one for logistics companies. While the development of vaccines is a sign that much-needed relief is on the way, accomplishing the task of distributing the necessary doses will require unprecedented collaboration, efforts, and flexibility.

To learn more about this process or for questions about how to handle complex logistics projects, contact our team of logistics experts today.

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