NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - UPS and FedEx usually compete fiercely for business. Now, the rivals are working closely together to ship the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, the first of the vaccines to win US government approval.
At a news conference on Saturday (Dec 12), General Gustave Perna, chief operating officer of Operation Warp Speed, the federal effort to bring a vaccine to market, said that boxes were being packed at Pfizer's plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and would be shipped to UPS and FedEx distribution hubs, where they would be dispersed to 636 locations across the country. Pfizer said shipping would start early Sunday morning.
General Perna said that 145 sites would receive the vaccine on Monday, 425 on Tuesday and 66 on Wednesday.
"Make no mistake, distribution has begun," he said.
UPS said it expected to start transporting the vaccine on Sunday morning, when employees stationed at Pfizer's facility in Michigan will affix special Bluetooth- and radio-enabled tracking tags to each shipment.
An aircraft waiting nearby will take the vaccine to the company's Worldport air cargo hub in Louisville, Kentucky, a sprawling 5.2 million sq ft sorting facility. Future shipments of the vaccine will also be transported by truck to the Louisville hub, which is up to a six-hour drive from Michigan.
"This is the moment we've been waiting for," Mr Wes Wheeler, president of the company's health care division, said in an interview on Saturday. "We've been planning for months with daily calls, drilling down to really quite minute details."
Mr Wheeler said he planned to oversee the first vaccine shipments from a newly established 24/7 command centre in Louisville, which will be staffed at any given time by teams of five to 10 people who will monitor each vaccine package as it moves through UPS' network.
Once the vaccine shipments arrive at the Louisville hub, they will be sorted alongside other packages and distributed to hospitals and other medical facilities.
Every truck driver or airplane pilot will know if they are carrying a vaccine package, Mr Wheeler said.
Both UPS and FedEx have said that doses will arrive at their destinations a day after leaving the Pfizer facilities.
Even before the vaccine was approved, UPS had already started shipping out kits with the medical supplies needed to administer it, such as alcohol wipes and syringes, Mr Wheeler recently told a Senate subcommittee.
UPS and FedEx will split distribution of the vaccine throughout the country, he said. After those shipments arrive, all Pfizer dosing sites will receive another shipment from UPS of 40 pounds (18kg) of extra dry ice to keep the vaccines at a frigid temperature.
"You have two fierce rivals here, and competitors, in FedEx and UPS, who literally are teaming up to get this delivered," Mr Richard Smith, an executive from FedEx, told the Senate's Subcommittee on Transportation and Safety last Thursday.
Both companies said the shipments would be closely tracked and monitored and would be given priority over other packages.
To ship its vaccine, Pfizer designed specialised containers packed with enough dry ice to keep a minimum of 975 doses cool for up to 10 days. Each comes with a tracking device.
Like UPS, FedEx said it would also affix its own tracking tags to vaccine shipments.
Each UPS truck carrying the doses will have a device that tracks its location, temperature, light exposure and motion, Mr Wheeler told the senators. The company's trucks will have escorts, too, he said.
It is not clear whether he meant the local police or other government officials, or possibly private guards, and he declined to elaborate on that and other details in the interview, citing security concerns. But the trucks leaving Pfizer's facility will be tracked "by the minute", he said.
The vaccine administration kits were assembled by McKesson, a medical supplier that was asked by federal authorities to act as a centralised distributor of the vaccines and supplies, such as syringes and alcohol wipes.
Unlike Pfizer, Moderna, whose vaccine could be approved soon, plans to have McKesson package its vaccines alongside the supplies, FedEx's Mr Smith said.
In the case of Pfizer, UPS plans to deliver the kits in advance of the vaccine, allowing it to identify any errors with addresses in its system, Mr Wheeler said. The kits contain a syringe, a substance used to dilute the vaccines, personal protective equipment, instructions and mixing vials, he said.
Shippers have spent months upgrading cold storage infrastructure for the Pfizer vaccine, which must be stored at minus 70 deg C.
UPS, for example, has been installing ultralow-temperature freezer farms that are able to keep goods as cold as minus 80 deg C near its air cargo hubs in the United States and Europe. It also plans to produce more than 24,000 pounds of dry ice per day at its hub in Louisville. FedEx has added ultracold freezers throughout its US network, too.
Airlines have also been preparing to transport the vaccines, working with plane manufacturers and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to safely carry more dry ice than is typically allowed.
United Airlines said on Saturday that it transported batches of the vaccine from Brussels to Chicago aboard five cargo-only flights this month.
UPS is also sending the FAA a daily file of its flights so it can help prioritise them over others, Mr Wheeler said. The company is also in daily contact with officials involved in Operation Warp Speed.