The Federal Aviation Administration said it was backing "first mass air delivery" of Covid-19 vaccines on Friday as drug companies and airlines prepare networks for widespread use.
United Airlines carried Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine from Brussels to Chicago O'Hare International Airport, according to people familiar with the matter.
Prior to approvals, pharmaceutical companies, airlines, and other parts of the supply chain are preparing for distribution as soon as regulators give the go-ahead, a vast network that includes cold stores to preserve the vaccines.
The Food and Drug Administration has not yet approved a Covid-19 vaccine. Pfizer, which developed its vaccine with BioNTech, and Moderna said recent studies have shown their vaccines are both more than 90% effective at preventing Covid-19 infection.
Pfizer did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Spokeswoman Kim Bencker previously said the company would not ship the vaccine until the FDA clears it for emergency use. Pfizer filed its application for emergency clearance on November 20th. The FDA is expected to discuss it publicly when the Agency's Advisory Panel on Vaccines and Related Biological Products meets on December 10th. Moderna plans to submit its application on Monday.
Some Americans could get their first dose of the vaccine within weeks if regulators sign off both vaccines immediately.
Pfizer's vaccine requires a storage temperature of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. By comparison, Moderna has stated that its vaccine stays stable for up to 30 days at 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature of a regular household or medical refrigerator. It can be stored at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit for up to six months.
The United flight, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, required special clearance from federal regulators to carry more dry ice than is normally allowed. Vaccines are stored at freezing temperatures.
The FAA put together a special team last month to deal with "Safe, Fast and Efficient Transport of Vaccines".
"Some vaccines require sustained cold temperatures during transit, which in certain circumstances require dry ice, a hazardous material," said an FAA statement. "The FAA is working with manufacturers, air carriers and airport authorities to provide guidance on how to implement the current legal requirements for safely transporting large quantities of dry ice by air."
Pfizer's vaccine will be very limited at first. It has already been said that by the end of the year it can produce 50 million doses of its two-dose regime – enough to immunize 25 million of the country's roughly 331 million people. The company plans to ship frozen vials of the vaccine to vaccination centers from its locations in Kalamazoo, Michigan and Puurs, Belgium.
Other airlines are also preparing for vaccine deliveries.
American Airlines' cargo division last week launched test flights with its pharmaceutical partners from Miami to South America "to test the thermal packaging and operational handling process we developed for shipping vaccines," spokeswoman Stacy Day said in a statement.
One challenge is that air cargo capacity has been limited due to the pandemic. With airlines canceling so many flights, there is less space available to move goods. However, United and other airlines have started operating cargo-only flights to make up for lost passenger revenue.
The airlines have used their crucial role in transporting potentially life-saving vaccines as a lever to seek additional federal aid, while passenger traffic is only a fraction of the previous year's level.
"As the nation looks ahead and faces the logistical challenges of distributing a vaccine, it is important to ensure that there are enough certified personnel and aircraft on duty to have the capacity to do the job," said Airlines for America. a trading group represents the largest US airlines, said in a letter to Congress officials on Nov. 18.
Some federal agencies have already started sending vaccination schedules to employees. Five agencies have told their employees that they could get the Covid-19 vaccine from Pfizer or Moderna in just eight weeks, a person aware of these plans told CNBC on Nov. 20.