Santa takes a back seat to COVID vaccine, UPS, FedEx officials say

LOS ANGELES, Dec 10 (Reuters) - United Parcel Service and FedEx Corp plan to deliver millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccines before holiday gifts - giving them VIP handling that includes GPS tracking, special labels and first-loaded status on planes and trucks.

The largest U.S. package delivery companies are key partners in the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine program and each has specialized capabilities to handle fragile medical products - including Pfizer Inc’s mRna vaccine that requires shipment at sub-Arctic temperatures.

“We’re giving priority to all the vaccine shipments,” Wesley Wheeler, president of global healthcare for UPS, told the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation on Thursday.

A panel of outside advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is meeting on Thursday to weigh whether to recommend that the agency authorize Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine for emergency use, one of the last steps before vaccinations could begin.

If the vaccine is approved, UPS will put Gold-level service labels, which are embedded with four radios, on every vaccine and dry ice shipment.

UPS will load the suitcase-sized vaccine packages - which have redundant GPS and temperature trackers - onto planes and trucks first and give them special handling in hubs and sorting centers.

“The drivers will know that they’re moving vaccines. We are ready.” Wheeler said.

Vaccine distribution could start just as the U.S. holiday shipping peak hits record-pandemic fueled e-commerce volumes.

Some experts are already warning that the number of packages tendered for delivery could be 5% greater than the capacity carriers have to handle them - resulting is as many as 700 million gifts not arriving on time. Both UPS and FedEx say they have the capacity to handle the shipments.

FedEx, for its part, has dubbed this year’s unprecedented peak season the “Shipathon”.

“We knew the vaccines would be coming. We’ve been planning for this for some time,” said Richard Smith, executive vice president of FedEx Express, which will handle shipments of the inoculations.

UPS, prior to vaccine shipments, will deliver supplies needed to administer Pfizer’s vaccine - including diluent, mixing vials, needles, syringes, masks and faceshields for healthcare workers and COVID-19 vaccination record cards for vaccine recipients.

The delivery companies will split next-day Pfizer vaccine deliveries in the United States and UPS will deliver any dry ice refills needed to keep vaccine in Pfizer’s suitcase-sized shipping boxes at minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94°F), Wheeler said. (Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; additional reporting Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru Editing by Alistair Bell)