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United transports first US Pfizer vaccines

written by Hannah Dowling | December 1, 2020

Image from Flickr (Bill Abbott)

United Airlines has delivered the first batch of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to the US through Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, as both the drugmaker and airline industry prepare for widespread distribution.

The airline completed the first delivery via a charter flight from Brussels to Chicago on Saturday, with an unidentified number of vaccine doses onboard.

In order to keep the vaccines at appropriate sub-zero temperatures, United required a waiver from the Federal Aviation Administration to be allowed to carry five times more dry ice on board than is usually permitted.

The flight served as the first step in the pharmaceutical company’s distribution plan, with Pfizer and BioNTech claiming they will be ready to distribute their vaccine in America “within hours” of authorisation from the Food and Drug Administration.

Representatives of the companies are set to meet with the FDA on 10 December, after which an independent advisory board will make a recommendation on authorisation.

“United Cargo established a COVID Readiness Task Team earlier this summer to help ensure we have the right people, products, services, and partnerships in place to support a vaccine distribution effort on a global scale,” United Airlines said in a statement.

The company is now ready to “safely and effectively support” the vaccine transportation needs of its pharmaceutical customers, the spokesperson said.


Meanwhile, American Airlines announced its own cargo trial flights between Miami and South America to test its process of shipping vaccines, however it will not be handling any actual vaccines as of yet, as confirmed by a spokesperson.

While test flights did not include live vaccines, they did reportedly include a stress testing trial of “a major pharmaceutical company’s thermal packaging”, CEO Doug Parker said in a LinkedIn post earlier this week.

Parker said the airline “successfully moved” the thermal packaging in its test flights last week.

American Airlines said in a statement that it has established a “network of team members that specialise in temperature-critical shipments”, and that it will work with the Federal Aviation Administration on “regulations governing shipments transported with dry ice”.

Utilising cargo and commercial carriers will allow the vaccine to be “distributed as quickly as possible”, Parker said.

Pfizer announced in early November that it had created a vaccine with over 90 per cent efficacy,  and no serious safety concerns aside from common side effects, which included fatigue, chills and fever.

 More than 40 million doses of the vaccine are anticipated to be ready by the end of 2020.

Elderly care facilities and health care providers will be the first offered the vaccine, according to US officials.


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