(Adds details on dry run delay, executive comment)
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 partners in the federal government’s Operation Warp Speed (OWS) 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 the global healthcare unit at 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 GPS trackers will also provide temperature, light exposure and motion data, backing up sensors provided by Pfizer. All of that information will stream into command centers run by UPS and OWS.
“We have three ways of looking at the packages through the system,” said Wheeler. “We are watching the packages all day long.”
UPS will load the suitcase-sized vaccine packages onto planes and trucks first and give them special handling in hubs and sorting centers. The company also will inform drivers who are transporting vaccines, and provide security escorts.
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.
UPS and FedEx executives said they are giving vaccines top priority and have reserved capacity for them.
Before vaccine deliveries start, UPS will deliver supplies needed to administer Pfizer inoculations - including diluent, mixing vials, needles, syringes, protective equipment 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 the first dry ice refills needed to keep vaccine in Pfizer’s suitcase-sized shipping boxes at minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94°F), Wheeler said.
Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s secretary of health and the president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers, said in prepared remarks that a quarter of states experienced a lag in receiving supply kits during a dry run.
“You’re going to have three different components ... that all need to arrive at the exact same place, at the right time so that the vaccine can be administered,” Levine said at the hearing.
The executives reassured Senators that they are ready to tackle the biggest and complex vaccination distribution effort in U.S. history.
“We deal with the unforeseen every day: weather, traffic ... regulatory holds, customs delays. We don’t expect anything that we won’t be able to handle,” Richard Smith, executive vice president of global support for FedEx Express. (Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; additional reporting by Richard Cowan in Washington and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru Editing by Alistair Bell)
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