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United Carries First Shipments of COVID-19 Vaccine

As the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine candidate awaits FDA emergency use approval, flights allow pre-positioning and stockpiling for immediate distribution

Pending FDA authorization, United Airlines has reportedly begun operating charter flights to pre-position the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for distribution, once the Food and Drug Administration grants emergency use authorization.

On Nov. 20, the partnership applied for the EUA under the government’s expedited ‘Operation Warp Speed’ program. The drug must still undergo review by the agency’s advisory committee, which is scheduled to meet on Dec. 10.

The FDA declined to give a timeline for the committee’s work, but both Health Secretary Alex Azar and Pfizer officials say authorization could be granted by mid-December, with a mass inoculation program likely to start within days after that.

According to reports in the Wall Street Journal, United chartered flights began Friday between Brussels International Airport and Chicago O’Hare International Airport as part of the “first mass air shipment of a vaccine.”

Although the FDA has not given its blessing to its use, the vaccine can be stockpiled ahead of approval. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was shown to be 95 percent effective against the coronavirus in large-scale late stage trials.

A second biotechnology firm, Moderna, has also applied for emergency use authorization from the FDA with its vaccine which achieved similar results, indicating 94.5 percent effectiveness in its trials.

Meanwhile a third vaccine candidate from Astrazeneca and Oxford University has also produced promising results with 90-plus percent efficacy. Results from that study are currently under review and an EUA request may be forthcoming.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine needs to be stored in extremely cold temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius. While neither United nor the FAA officially confirmed the flights, the FAA did say it is “supporting the first mass air shipment of a vaccine.” The agency says it has permitted United to carry 15,000 pounds of dry ice per flight, five times more than the usual allowance, indicating the shipments are indeed underway.

Other cargo and passenger airlines have also begun preparing for future vaccine shipments, the Journal reported. With the prospect of three vaccines in the pipeline, the air cargo industry is gearing up for handing large-scale transportation and distribution of the products to virtually every corner of the world.

“Safely delivering COVID-19 vaccines will be the mission of the century for the global air cargo industry,” said IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac. “But it won’t happen without careful advance planning. And the time for that is now.”,, University of Oxford,,,,