The mass distribution of Covid-19 vaccines in the U.S. will rely in part on a small circle of trucking companies with the experience and equipment needed to deliver the fragile doses intact on critical legs of the rollout.
The trucks outfitted for refrigerated transport are part of a sprawling and complex logistics network aimed at delivering the vaccine developed by
intact and as rapidly as possible to U.S. hospitals, public health departments, clinics and other sites where the shots are being administered.
The doses are stored in shipping boxes packed with dry ice and must be kept at ultracold temperatures as they move from Pfizer facilities to distribution hubs to inoculation sites. United Parcel Service Inc. and
deliver the doses via air and truck to the states and territories receiving them within one or two days. Commercial fleets with expertise in moving pharmaceutical products are assisting on that first part of the journey and in some cases on last-mile delivery of the shots.
The road transport piece of the logistics puzzle began some 36 hours after the Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, as FedEx,
and Boyle Transportation trucks pulled out of the Pfizer plant in Kalamazoo, Mich.
“We were up and in the truck at 5:30 a.m.,” said truck driver
who moved one of the first vaccine shipments on Sunday from the Pfizer plant to a UPS facility in Lansing, Mich.
Ms. Brewer and her husband,
drive as a team for Billerica, Mass.-based Boyle Transportation, which specializes in secure, temperature-controlled transport. The pair have decades of experience on the road and were chosen for this job in part because of their safe driving record, a Boyle executive said.
They got to the Pfizer facility at 6:14 a.m., went through security checks and by about 8:30 a.m. everything was ready to go. They left the site under snow flurries and were escorted by law enforcement to the road and along some 75 miles to a UPS facility at the Capital Region International Airport in Lansing, Mich.
When they got there about 90 minutes later, UPS took in the trailer “and everything was smooth as it could be,” said Ms. Brewer.
“I feel very proud to do the job that I do,” she said. “While this is something that has been needed and something people were looking forward to, and the pressure is on…. This is what we do, and what we excel at.”
The initial shipments mark the start of a complicated logistics operation that will include hundreds of truck transports that will deliver tens of millions of vaccines over the coming months to populations weary from the Covid-19 pandemic’s heavy toll.
Vaccine candidates from other manufacturers, including the shot from
now under FDA review, will be distributed by
, the largest seasonal flu vaccine distributor in the U.S., through an existing contract with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The doses will be shipped to McKesson distribution centers for staging alongside kits of related supplies such as syringes. FedEx and UPS will then deliver those materials, as well as supply kits for use with the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, to sites designated by state officials.
The U.S. vaccine rollout in December will involve about 78 temperature-controlled trucks shipping from Pfizer and Moderna domestic facilities, according to modeling by technology-market advisory firm ABI Research. Based on the number of doses the U.S. has agreed to purchase from both suppliers, some 632 outbound trucks would be required in 2021, or an average of 53 trucks a month in the U.S. Those numbers will rise if other vaccine candidates are approved.
Moving vaccines and other pharmaceutical products with strict temperature requirements is a delicate business. Carriers that specialize in such shipments typically provide what is known as temperature-validated service. Sensors and other devices monitor conditions inside the trailer and record data to confirm that the temperature remains within a certain range.
Fleets that work with pharmaceutical companies undergo extensive quality audits and certifications based on global standards for the transport of medicine. Developing that expertise “took us about 10 years,” said
co-president of Boyle Transportation. “You can’t haul chicken nuggets and then transport oncology drugs.”
Carriers typically use two-driver teams for such shipments to keep trucks moving and ensure valuable cargo isn’t left unattended.
“Having team drivers is part of our security protocol for pharmaceutical products,” said
president of global forwarding and expedite at
XPO Logistics Inc.,
which regularly ships vaccines and is working with drugmakers and the companies charged with distributing the Covid-19 shots.
XPO has tracing devices on every trailer for such shipments, and alarms on all the doors, she said.
The vaccine rollout comes as overall U.S. trucking capacity is tight, as businesses restock inventories and ship merchandise for the holidays. Demand for premium services such as expedited transport is high, and pharmaceutical specialists are also fielding additional demand to move flu vaccines and Covid-19 test kits.
Shipping and delivering the Covid-19 shots will become more complex as distribution moves out from large urban and suburban areas into more remote locations with smaller populations, said
ABI Research’s principal analyst for freight transportation and logistics.
“If you think of rural populations, you’re not necessarily going to bring a tractor-trailer in,” Ms. Beardslee said. “In a remote area, where are you going to find those drivers that are available and used to handling [temperature-sensitive] pharmaceutical products?”
Defense Department officials involved in planning distribution of the Covid-19 vaccines said there is sufficient U.S. commercial transportation capacity for the rollout and there should be no need for extra military equipment or personnel.
“The industry is actually quite well-equipped for this,” said
chief operating officer of Cavalier Logistics, a freight transport company based in Northern Virginia that specializes in temperature-controlled logistics and is involved in Covid-19 vaccine distribution efforts. “It’s just that this is at a volume that is unusual.”
Mr. Neilson doesn’t expect capacity constraints to slow things down. “There’s a high level of motivation to be part of this,” he said. “It’s a global problem and we all want to turn the page.”
Write to Jennifer Smith at [email protected]
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