LOS ANGELES - As California prepares to open two mass COVID-19 vaccination sites as part of a federal pilot program to boost the number of available doses, commercial airlines have been assisting in ramping up delivery efforts.
"We started flying cargo-only flights back in March of last year when we saw the drastic changes to the passenger schedule. The next evolution of that was to transport the vaccines," said United Cargo manager Chris Busch.
United has the ability to carry more than one million doses of the coronavirus vaccine on a single 777-200 aircraft.
"Here at LAX since the start of the pandemic last year we’ve been holding about 38 million pounds of cargo that’s transferred in and out of here. Three million of that has been dedicated to life-saving cargo shipments. That includes the vaccine, test kits, PPE and other pharmaceuticals to help save lives as we go through this crisis," said United Ramp Manager Tammy Holloway-Servedio.
United was the first commercial airline to fly the first FDA-authorized Pfizer vaccines to the U.S. The airline operated five cargo-only flights in early December delivering COVID-19 vaccines from Brussels to Chicago.
In anticipation of a potential vaccine, earlier this summer United Cargo established a COVID Readiness Task Force to help ensure we have the right people, products, services and partnerships in place to support a vaccine distribution effort on a global scale.
"The biggest challenge was the uncertainty with the vaccines and what temperature requirements were going to be needed for the transport of the vaccines and that was a lot of the pre-work that we did starting last summer," said Chris Busch.
Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be stored in ultra-cold freezers that keep it between negative 112 and negative 76 degrees Fahrenheit.
United specifically configured its 777 widebody aircraft to carry 15,000 lbs. of dry ice- up from 3,000 lbs., which dramatically increases the vaccine storage capacity.
A FedEx plane carrying the Southern California region's first shipments of the Pfizer vaccine landed at Los Angeles International Airport on Dec. 13 with around 83,000 doses on board.
California is now administering about 1 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine each week, according to Gov. Gavin Newsom, a rate two to three times higher than the initial rollout.