Pfizer books United charter flights to position its COVID-19 vaccine

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One of the most interesting things about the travel industry is that it’s not just about bringing people from here to there and creating a transportation network that allows us to visit places that are very different from where we live. At its very core, the travel sector — and its aviation industry, in particular — also plays a large role in distributing goods around the globe. The airlines are masters of logistics so it’s no wonder that the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that pharmaceutical company Pfizer has tapped United to help position the COVID-19 vaccine it developed in concert with BioNTech around the world.

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While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not yet approved Pfizer’s vaccine, the company is already tackling the immense challenge of distribution in a bid to be at the ready when approval is imminent.

For its part on Friday, United Airlines began flying charter flights between Brussels International Airport and Chicago O’Hare to move doses of the vaccine so it’s where it has to be when Pfizer is given the OK to begin vaccinating people.

While Pfizer hasn’t released details about its plan, the WSJ obtained a Nov. 24 letter from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) with information on vaccine distribution.

One of the interesting points included is United’s request to carry more dry ice on its flights than is normally allowed. According to the reporting done by the Wall Street Journal, the FAA approved the airline to carry five times the normal amount of dry ice per flight. The 15,000 pounds of dry ice will be packed in Pfizer-developed boxes — about the size of a suitcase — that will keep the vaccine doses cold.

United won’t be the only airline or transportation company involved in vaccine distribution (be it from Pfizer, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson). The Wall Street Journal article also talked about American Airlines’ trial flights from Miami to South America, which is part of a test of the efficacy of its vaccine thermal packaging and procedures.

As we head into December, we’ll likely hear more about how the airlines and companies like FedEx and UPS will assist with vaccine distribution. On Dec. 10, the FDA will meet to discuss Pfizer’s request to authorize the emergency use of its vaccine in the United States. Moderna is expected to make a similar request to the federal agency in early December as well. Depending on the outcome of those meetings, approval to roll out one or more vaccines could happen as early as mid-December.