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The COVID-19 vaccine flies high and on dry ice to reach you



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FedEx will use Boeing 767 aircraft, as pictured here, to deliver COVID-19 vaccines.

FedEx

Visit the WHO website for the most current news and information about the coronavirus pandemic.

Air freight is essential to our lives. Planes quickly deliver food and mail to us, goods we buy online (such as the Laptop I’m writing this down) and flowers we order for Mother’s Day. According to the International Air Transport Association, about 35% of world trade is in airplanes, accounting for $ 6 trillion in goods.

It is also crucial to public health. Air freight carriers will be at the forefront of distribution of the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines around the world. Transporting vaccines by air is not new – influenza vaccines are distributed every year – but the importance and scope of the COVID-19 vaccine distribution is second to none. Pfizer alone expects to produce up to 50 million doses of vaccine by 2020 and 1.3 billion by 2021, and they all have to get somewhere.

Well-known giants such as UPS, DHL and FedEx will play a big role in the process, but so will passenger airlines with freight activities such as American, United and Delta. This is what they do to prepare to keep the vaccines safe and bring them to you.

Keep in mind that while vaccines are now being administered, the coronavirus the pandemic is raging to date with nearly 74 million cases and 1.65 million deaths around the world. Social detachment and wearing a mask are still absolutely essential to stop the spread of the virus and protect the health of you and others. And it will stay that way for months, even after you have been vaccinated.

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Sarah Tew / CNET

How are the vaccines transported on planes?

Pfizer’s vaccine, just plain Friday approved for use by the FDA, should be stored at a temperature of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 70 degrees Celsius). Cargo that must be kept extremely cold can usually be transported in “active” containers with built-in temperature control (such as a portable freezer) or “passive” containers that are cooled with dry ice. Regardless, all containers used to ship the vaccines have temperature recorders to ensure vaccine safety.

The advantage of passive containers is that they are lighter, which makes them more portable and does not require a power source. Pfizer wanted to distribute its vaccine as soon as possible and went for the passive option by designing its own containers (the containers are the size of a suitcase, according to The Wall Street Journal).

Airlines have more options for vaccines that don’t need to be kept as cold, like Moderna’s (which still needs FDA approval). For example, United Airlines says that with 15 different cargo containers, we can “support a variety of temperature needs, be it room temperature, chilled or frozen.”

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Delta employees unload vaccines from an airplane.

Delta Airlines

What special steps do airlines take?

UPS says it will track all shipments from a new dedicated command center. The facility will be manned around the clock and will collect data from the temperature recorders in shipping containers. Each UPS package also has a label indicating that it is a vaccine shipment. The company built its own dry ice manufacturing facility at its hub in Louisville, Kentucky, with a capacity of more than 24,000 pounds per day.

Other carriers will also track shipments. American Airlines will do this from its Cargo Control Center at its Fort Worth, Texas headquarters, and Delta Airlines will have a “Vaccine Control Tower” with centralized monitoring and customer reporting.

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Freight containers will be loaded onto a United Airlines Boeing 777 at San Francisco International Airport in 2018.

Josh Miller / CNET

What types of aircraft will be used?

It depends on the airline and the available aircraft it has in its fleet. But in general, a larger plane is better because it can hold more shipments. United Airlines says one of its Boeing 777-200s, one of the largest aircraft in its fleet, can carry more than a million doses of vaccine. American also operates the 777, while Delta’s largest passenger jet is relatively large Airbus A350.

With largely wide-body fleets, including Boeing’s 777, 767 and 747; the Airbus A300; and the McDonnell Douglas MD-11, FedEx and UPS will also be able to move large amounts of doses.


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Will vaccines be carried in the cargo hold on passenger flights?

Yes. Although it depends on the route flown, United and American will use both cargo and passenger flights. The vaccines are stored in the cargo hold under the passenger cabin.

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A FedEx representative handles dry ice for a shipment.

FedEx

Are there any concerns about the transportation of dry ice on an airplane?

Dry ice is solid carbon dioxide, the same molecule that humans and animals exhale. As long as handled properly, it will keep everything from food to medicines cold for long periods without posing a major health risk (that is, unless you touch it with bare hands).

The greater danger is when dry ice warms above minus 78.5 degrees Celsius (minus 109.3 degrees Fahrenheit). At that point it will sublimate, which means that it instantly turns into an odorless and colorless gas and skips the liquid state. Carbon dioxide is harmful when we breathe it in. A small amount can lead to loss of cognitive function, fatigue or unconsciousness (not ideal conditions for a pilot), and too much can lead to coma or even suffocation.

Because those dangers worsen in a confined space, such as an airplane, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a safety warning to operators on Dec. 10 advising airlines to do the following (among others):

  • Provide maximum ventilation, including during ground defrosting, to reduce carbon dioxide build-up in the aircraft.
  • Using carbon dioxide sensors installed in the aircraft or worn by the pilots, train the crew to recognize dangerous levels of the gas and implement effective risk management.
  • Train pilots to improve decision making on a detector alarm.
  • Consider the placement of the cargo on the plane because as dry ice sublimates, the plane will lose weight, potentially affecting the center of gravity.
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American tracks flights from its operations control center in Fort Worth, Texas.

American Airlines

What other role does the FAA play?

Since the FAA manages the country’s air traffic control system, it will play a big role. In an email to CNET, an agency spokeswoman said this:

The FAA will handle flights with COVID-19 vaccines in the same manner as flights with personal protective equipment in the spring of 2020. Airlines will provide lists of flights with COVID-19 vaccines to the FAA Command Center, which will alert air traffic control facilities. . in the field that these are priority flights. The Command Center will closely monitor flights along their routes to ensure they receive as much priority as possible. “

The FAA has also issued an advisory report for airports handling vaccine flights, outlining issues such as giving priority to ground vehicles collecting the vaccine, and relaxing the rules on how much dry ice airlines are allowed to carry on their flights. (Even passengers can carry a small amount of checked baggage.) United said it can now carry 15,000 pounds of dry ice per flight – five times more than normal, and FedEx will be able to carry about 500,000 dry ice shipments per month.

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Vaccines ready for shipment at a UPS facility.

UPS

What happens to vaccine shipments before and between flights?

Once a vaccine shipment arrives at an outbound shipping facility, airlines will have to keep it cold. This temperature-controlled freight infrastructure already exists, although some companies are expanding their network to meet demand.

FedEx says it has added more than 10 secure cold storage facilities in the past three years and now has more than 90 in the Americas, Asia, Australia and Europe. The company has also added ultra-cold freezers and expanded the capacity for freezers and refrigerators in some locations.

UPS has invested in a Louisville “freezer farm” for ultra-cold storage and will provide portable freezers for vaccine dosing sites where dry ice is not available.

American will use its existing temperature-controlled facilities at airports in Philadelphia, Miami, Dallas, London, Chicago and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Delta will rely on cold storage at airports in Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and Seattle.

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to be health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care practitioner if you have any questions about a medical condition or health goals.


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