First ‘bulk airlift’ arrives from Pfizer Covid vaccine as airlines prepare for more

The Federal Aviation Administration said it would support the “first mass airlift” of Covid-19 vaccines on Friday as pharmaceutical companies and airlines set up networks for widespread distribution.

United Airlines shipped the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine from Brussels to Chicago O’Hare International Airport, according to people familiar with the case.

Prior to approvals, pharmaceutical companies, airlines and other parts of the supply chain are preparing for distribution as regulators give the green light, a huge network that also includes cold stores to preserve vaccines.

The Covid-19 vaccine has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Both Pfizer, which developed its vaccine with BioNTech, and Moderna, said recent studies show that their vaccine is both more than 90% effective in preventing Covid-19 infection.

Pfizer did not respond to any further requests for comments. Spokesman Kim Bencker previously said the company will not deliver the vaccine until it has received FDA approval for emergency use. Pfizer filed its request for an emergency waiver on Nov. 20, and the FDA is expected to discuss it publicly when the agency’s Advisory Committee on Vaccines and Related Biological Products meets next on Dec. 10. Moderna says it plans to submit its application on Monday.

Some Americans could get their first dose in a few weeks if regulators sign both vaccines without delay.

The storage temperature for Pfizer vaccine is minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. By comparison, according to Moderna, the vaccine is stable for up to 30 days at 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit at the temperature of a standard home or medical refrigerator. It can be stored for up to six months at a negative 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

The U.S. flight, first reported in the Wall Street Journal, required special approval from federal regulators to carry more dry ice than usual, people said. Vaccines are stored below freezing.

The FAA set up a special group last month to “deliver safe, fast, and effective vaccines.”

“Many vaccines require a constant cold temperature during transport, which in certain circumstances requires dry ice, a hazardous substance,” the FAA said in a statement. “The FAA is working with manufacturers, air carriers, and airport authorities to provide guidance on the implementation of current regulatory requirements for the safe transportation of large quantities of dry ice in air cargo.”

Vaccination with Pfizer will initially be very limited. Earlier, it was said that by the end of the year, it could produce 50 million doses from two million doses – enough to immunize 25 million of the nation’s roughly 331 million people. The company plans to transport the frozen ampoules of the vaccine to vaccination points from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Puurs, Belgium.

Other airlines are also preparing to deliver the vaccines.

American Airlines ’freight division began trial operations with pharmaceutical partners from Miami to South America last week“ to test a stress test of the thermal packaging and operation process established to transport vaccines, ”a Stacy Day spokesman said in a statement.

One of the challenges we face is that air cargo capacity is limited due to the epidemic. As airlines have canceled so many flights, fewer aircraft bellies are available to carry cargo. However, United and other airlines have begun operating freight-only flights to help with the loss of passenger revenue.

Airlines have been able to play a critical role in transporting the potentially life-saving vaccine with additional federal support, while passenger traffic is a fraction of last year’s level.

“As the nation anticipates and takes on the logistical challenges of vaccine distribution, it will be important to ensure that there are enough certified staff and aircraft available to perform the task adequately,” the Airlines for America commercial group represents the largest U.S. airlines. letter to the leaders of Congress.

Some federal agencies have already begun sending vaccination plans to staff. Five agencies have begun telling employees they will receive the Pfizer or Moderna Covid-19 vaccine in as little as eight weeks, a person familiar with the plans told CNBC on Nov. 20.