UPS, Delta prepare for COVID-19 vaccine shipments

Air transport group warns of ‘potentially severe capacity constraints’

Local transportation giants UPS and Delta Air Lines are gearing up for the massive endeavor of shipping COVID-19 vaccines around the world once doses are available.

Sandy Springs-based UPS is expanding freezer farms in Louisville and CEO Carol Tomé told investors Wednesday the company has been working on logistics for clinical trials, giving it “valuable data and insights” for distribution.

Delta, which has its largest hub at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, said Tuesday it has expanded its cooler facilities at its Atlanta warehouse and will use a special cooler container in cargo holds of its planes to ship vaccines.

Air cargo is normally a key part of distributing temperature-sensitive vaccines, but will require lots of advance planning with governments, according to the International Air Transport Association. The industry group has warned of “potentially severe capacity constraints in transporting vaccines by air.”

UPS, expected to play a leading role alongside package-delivery rival FedEx, said its UPS Premier package sensor technology can monitor vaccine shipments with priority handling. It’s part of a new healthcare and life sciences unit UPS launched last year, combining sensors on packages with tracking capabilities to increase on-time reliability for health care shipments.

The shipper has been working with FEMA to transport goods since the spring, when it added more than 200 air freighter flights to ship test kits, masks, gloves and other supplies. Marken, a UPS subsidiary, has for years played a role in logistics for clinical trials, shipping temperature-sensitive pharmaceuticals to trial participants and specimens to laboratories.

UPS also has tested drones for humanitarian efforts to deliver vaccines and blood in Rwanda in partnership with vaccine alliance Gavi.

Delta, for its part, was the first U.S. passenger carrier to get a pharma logistics certification from the International Air Transport Association Center for Excellence. Delta said it can transport temperature-sensitive shipments across the Atlantic Ocean with joint venture partner Air France-KLM Cargo.

The airline said the DoKaSch Opticooler RAP container is now part of its cold chain pharmaceutical program to transport vaccines, and can maintain temperatures from 2-8 degrees Celsius and 15-25 degrees Celsius without dry ice. The cooler container has a large battery that can operate up to 120 hours along with backup systems, according to Delta.

Delivering a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine to the world’s 7.8 billion people would fill 8,000 Boeing 747 cargo aircraft, according to the International Air Transport Association. While some vaccines can be delivered by land, “the air cargo industry will still face its largest single transport challenge ever,” it added.

Coronavirus prevention measures mean there could be increased processing times at borders, so fast-track procedures will be needed for flights and landing permits for planes carrying vaccines, along with exemptions for flight crews from quarantine requirements and priority on arrival for the temperature-sensitive shipments, according to the industry association.

Adding to the challenge, passenger airlines have significantly cut back flights around the world and shrunk their fleets of planes due to the severe downturn in air travel. Delta alone is retiring about 200 planes from its fleet this year as it becomes a smaller airline.

“Right now in the world of freight, we are in a really tough situation,” with so many passenger aircraft taken out of service, said John Haber, CEO of Spend Management Experts, an Atlanta-based supply chain consulting firm.