United Airlines has reportedly been operating charter flights to fly shipments of the first batch of Covid-19 vaccine in anticipation of approval from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other authorities, as the United States gears up for mass inoculation program expected to begin in late December. The first charter flights are an effort by the drugmaker to move the vaccines quickly once approvals are granted the, Wall Street Journalreported.

The flights that took off on Friday are reportedly being used to carry shipments to and from the United States and Europe. According to the Journal, Pfizer has expanded storage capacity at specific distribution sites in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, and Karlsruhe, Germany.

Ray of Hope

Pfizer
Pfizer YouTube Grab

The flights that reportedly took off on Friday are the first major signs of a vaccine finally ready to hit markets as governments gear up to vaccinate millions over the next few months and probably even years. However, it will be a daunting task for both Pfizer and United Airlines given that the vaccine needs to be transported and stored in extremely low temperature that of minus 70 degree Celsius.

United Airlines has been granted special permission by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) to fly with increased quantities of dry ice, to keep the vaccine cold. However, the Wall Street Journal report did not mention the specific charter routes that the vaccines were being flown to and it was not known whether the flights were international or domestic US.

Also, Pfizer is yet to comment on the development. The FAA on the other hand said in a statement to the newspaper on Friday that it is supporting the "first mass air shipment of a vaccine," and is working with other airlines on vaccine transportation.

A Big Challenge

United Airlines
A United Airlines flight (For representational purposes only). Pixabay

Understandably, transporting the vaccine will be a major challenge. According to reports, the flights are being equipped with special refrigeration facilities and the vaccines are being stored in dry-ice packets. The FAA told the newspaper that it has allowed United Airlines to fly five times more dry ice than is usually permitted — 15,000 pounds per flight — to keep the vaccine at the extremely chilled temperature it needs to prevent spoiling.

Pfizer has final vaccine assembly centers in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and in Puurs, Belgium, and runs distribution storage sites in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, and Karlsruhe, Germany. The WSJ report mentions that United plans to operate cargo flights between the Belgian capital, Brussels, and Chicago's O'Hare airport to support distribution of the vaccine, according to a November 24 letter from the FAA.

Dry Ice Container
Pfizer will ship the COVID-19 vaccines in special boxes containing 23 kilograms of dry ice to keep it cold (representational image) Wikimedia Commons

Understandably, there are valid reasons behind that. Chicago is close to Pfizer's distribution site in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, which is being expanded in preparation for the vaccine roll out. Besides, Pfizer is also planning to operate scores of hundreds of truck trips each day once approval is given by authorities.

Vaccine doses for Europe will be produced at sites owned by BioNTech, Pfizer's German partner in developing and manufacturing the vaccine. The does for Europe will be manufactured in Brussels, while the US doses will be produced in Michigan, at the Kalamazoo plant.