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How UPS plans to ship and deliver COVID-19 vaccines when they're approved

UPS official Kate Gutmann detailed how the company will deliver doses of a COVID-19 vaccine that needs to be kept at 94 degrees below zero.
/ Source: TODAY

As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reviews the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines for approval, it raises the logistical question of how millions of doses will be delivered to hospitals, nursing homes, doctor's offices and pharmacies when they are ready to be administered.

UPS chief sales and solutions officer Kate Gutmann, who is also the senior vice president of the company's healthcare and life sciences unit, detailed on the 3rd hour of TODAY Wednesday how the company deliver doses of the vaccines once they are approved.

"We are ready," Gutmann told Sheinelle Jones. "We've worked extensively over the last few months with Pfizer for sure, and eight of the 10 vaccines in development, and the planning paid off. We have made the complexity of it easy, and we are ready to deliver."

Delivery companies are a crucial part of the chain that includes national pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens, which have been selected by the federal government's Operation Warp Speed as sites to administer the vaccine.

The goal of the government program is to produce and deliver 300 million doses of safe and effective vaccines, with initial doses available by January 2021.

The first doses could be distributed as early as this month, and will be prioritized for health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities. Experts have suggested vaccines could be available for everyone in the general public by late spring or early summer.

The Pfizer vaccine presents a shipping challenge because it requires ultra-cold storage at almost -94 degrees, which is colder than the temperature on Mars. UPS will ship it in boxes that feature two layers of dry ice, a thermal shipper designed by Pfizer to maintain the cold temperature, as well as a GPS and thermal monitor.

UPS has ramped up to where it can produce 24,000 pounds of dry ice per day, according to Gutmann. The company has been conducting test runs that have had a 99% delivery rate.

"We have been investing in the healthcare space for many, many years so we actually have a cold chain process end to end," Gutmann said.

UPS will also ship two additional boxes with the vaccine — one containing an extra supply of dry ice, and one containing a kit with a syringe, mask, sanitizer and other items needed to administer the vaccine. The extra box of dry ice is for dosing sites that may not have refrigerators or freezers to store the vaccine.

"We send it to supplement so that it can continue the efficacy for a longer amount of time," Gutmann said.

The company also will have its own sensor in the package with the vaccine that monitors temperature and transmits information related to the package, as well as its own GPS monitor.

The vaccines will able to be moved by the company's more than 500 aircraft, and UPS has 10 million square feet of temperature-controlled warehouse space in 32 countries that can be used to package the vaccine, Gutmann said.

There also could be vaccines delivered in shipments right alongside everyone's Christmas presents, depending on the timing of their approval.

"So interestingly because of the technology that's wrapped around and the prioritized movement of these packages, we actually can move on the same aircraft and then the same sortation (as other deliveries)," Gutmann said. "It's the fast lane, if you will. First in, first out."

Gutmann also noted that UPS is prepared for the storage and delivery of other vaccines that may require different types of temperature control than the one made by Pfizer.

The company is also prepared to make the deliveries despite this being their busiest period in years, as millions more Americans rely on delivery during the pandemic.

"We've been delivering our best peak season in over a decade, and as you can see from the ship matrix data, we are well over 97% on-time performance," Gutmann said.