Almost as soon as COVID-19 came and began demolishing the scene, we were desperate for a vaccine. At first, many guessed it might take years to find and trial a vaccine we could use. After all, before COVID-19, the fastest vaccine to ever materialize from lab to jab was for the mumps back in 1971. Developed in record time, the Mumpsvax still took four years.
Four years wasn’t going to cut it for a worldwide pandemic with a rising death toll and impact on industry, families, and morale. Somewhat miraculously, with the strength of combined efforts, funding, and knowledge, not one but three vaccines for COVID-19 were developed in less than a year. However, almost immediately, it seemed as if having the vaccine was only half the battle. The other half? Getting it to where it needed to be—in the arms of 7.8 billion people around the world.
Luckily, there are a few major airlines that were up for the challenge. In the U.S., major commercial carriers Delta, American, and United stepped up to the plate to help shipping giants like DHL, UPS, and FedEx get vaccines to their final destinations, while over in Asia, Singapore Airlines tapped into the ring.
Besides the sheer scale of distribution needed, one of the biggest challenges with transporting the vaccines is keeping this precious cargo at a stable temperature from pickup to delivery, a challenging task when you consider how frequently the temperature changes during flight. To remain effective, the COVID-19 vaccines must be kept at intensely frigid temperatures during transport. For example, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine needs to stay at a wild -94 degrees Fahrenheit during shipment. The Moderna and Astra-Zeneca vaccines aren’t quite as dramatic.
To prepare, airlines began running trial flights to simulate the conditions needed to transport vaccines safely. This included stress-testing the thermal packaging (known as cool boxes), performing several temperature checks throughout the process, and testing the handling process to smooth out any logistics. By the time the first COVID-19 vaccine was authorized for emergency use in December, they were ready to roll within hours–carrying vaccine shipments in both passenger and cargo planes.
United became the first airline to fly the vaccine with a shipment of Pfizer-BioNTech vials in the belly of a passenger flight. Within days, and answering the call within mere hours, American and Delta flew to the frontlines; American transporting a shipment of vaccines in a 777-200 aircraft flying from Chicago to Miami, and Delta from Detroit to Atlanta and San Francisco. On Dec. 21, 2020, Singapore Airlines flight SQ7979 delivered the first batch of vaccines to Asia when it touched down in Singapore with a shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine from Brussels, Belgium.
To successfully ship vaccines, airlines rely on cold chain logistics to make sure temperature-sensitive, like the vaccines, arrive in usable or working condition. Managing bold chain logistics means juggling things like having enough cold storage, cold processing centers, cold shipment capabilities, and cooling systems to keep things at the right temperature through the shipment.
According to its website, American Airlines has the largest dedicated temperature-controlled pharmaceutical shipping facility operated by an airline in the U.S., which it uses to transport temperature-critical shipments within its network of over 150 cities and 46 countries around the world. The passenger airline has also earned certification from the International Air Transport Association’s Center of Excellence for Independent Validators in Pharmaceutical Logistics (CEIV Pharma), which is awarded to carriers transporting pharmaceutical and healthcare products.
Delta Cargo was actually the first airline in the U.S. to receive this certification. In the four years since, the airline has built a network of over 50 locations worldwide where they are capable of handling pharmaceutical products, like vaccines. Delta can track and manage temperatures, milestones, and scheduling for sensitive shipments like the vaccines from their main control center. They also set up a task force solutions team in summer 2020 to help manage the expected logistics needed for transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
We don’t know about you, but these vaccines can’t get shipped fast enough—and we love seeing the travel industry pitch in to help get it done.
American Airlines. "Newsroom - Preparing for a Vaccine: American Cargo." Retrieved Jan 15, 2021.