Planes, trucks and ultracold boxes: Pfizer preps massive COVID-19 vaccine distribution effort

As Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine comes into the home stretch on the R&D side, the drugmaker is scaling up an ambitious supply chain and distribution system aimed at delivering hundreds of millions of doses around the world as quickly as possible. 

The system centers on distribution sites in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Puurs, Belgium, where the company will load reusable, temperature-controlled containers on a total of two dozen trucks per day, the Wall Street Journal reports. The company plans to ship 7.6 million doses daily to nearby airports. 

The sheer size of the effort is complicated further by the fact that Pfizer's mRNA-based shot must be stored at almost 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. To make that happen, the company designed suitcase-sized shipping containers that will keep its doses at ultracold temperatures for up to 10 days. Each container holds between 1,000 and 5,000 doses, the newspaper reports.

Pfizer is planning to purchase cargo space on an average of 20 planes per day from FedEx, UPS and DHL International to transport doses to points as close as possible to vaccination sites, such as major hospitals or remote medical centers, according to WSJ.  

Those carriers will also be responsible for trucking doses from airports to those sites, according to the newspaper. In all, the company expects deliveries to take three days. 

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Pfizer's vaccine needs to be stored at negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit, executives previously said, according to MarketWatch. Another mRNA shot from Moderna requires storage at negative 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

The requirements would make standard vaccination in a doctors' office or pharmacy "very difficult," SVB Leerink analysts wrote. The vaccinations would instead have to take place at hospitals, labs or other under circumstances, they said.

Previously, Pfizer tagged sites in Kalamazoo, Andover, Massachusetts, and St. Louis for its U.S. COVID-19 production. Pfizer aims to deliver 100 million vaccine doses in 2020 and 1.3 billion next year. Aside from its Kalamazoo and Puurs distribution sites, the drugmaker has set up locations in Wisconsin and Germany for additional storage to prep for shipping.

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The drugmaker has supply deals with the U.S. for 100 million doses—with an option for 500 million more—plus an arrangement in Europe for up to 300 million doses. Japan, the U.K. and other countries have placed orders as well. 

Meanwhile, Pfizer is in phase 3 testing with the shot and expects an early indication about efficacy yet this month. The drugmaker plans to file for a potential emergency use authorization next month if everything goes according to plan. So far, the company's COVID-19 vaccine efforts have cost $2 billion, according to WSJ. 

Aside from Pfizer, fellow mRNA player Moderna could follow a similar timeline. The company has partnered with Lonza for production with aims to produce up to 1 billion doses per year. Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and Novavax are also in late-stage testing, and they have been working up manufacturing and distribution plans of their own.