United Airlines charters flights to distribute Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine

United Airlines on Friday commenced charter flights to send doses of Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine candidates to prepare for distribution, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal that cited people familiar with the matter.

In a statement to The Hill, the Federal Aviation Administration said it was “supporting the first mass air shipment of a vaccine” on Friday.

“As a result of the historic pace of vaccine development through Operation Warp Speed and careful logistics planning, the FAA today is supporting the first mass air shipment of a vaccine,” the FAA statement read.


The FAA said it is working alongside manufacturers, air carriers, and airport authorities to provide guidance on implementing existing regulatory requirements for safely transporting large amounts of dry ice air cargo. Due to the complexity of the fast-tracked vaccine, Pfizer’s candidate must be kept at below freezing temperatures, meaning special accommodations must be made for both transport and storage.

“The FAA established the ‘FAA COVID-19 Vaccine Air Transport Team’ in October to ensure safe, expeditious, and efficient transportation of vaccines. Several vaccines need continued cold temperatures during transport, which, in some circumstances, require dry ice, a hazardous material,” the statement added.

A United spokesperson told The Hill in a statement on Friday that the vaccine rollout was being handled by United Cargo, which established a COVID Readiness Task Team earlier this year “to help ensure we have the right people, products, services, and partnerships in place to support a vaccine distribution effort on a global scale.”

“We have made a commitment to our pharmaceutical and medical customers that we are ready to safely and effectively support their vaccines transportation needs,” the spokesperson added, noting that the safety and security of the vaccine “is our priority.”

United did not provide details about which flights have been designated to carry vaccine materials.

Around-the-clock air traffic services will prioritize flights carrying vaccine cargo to ensure the highest safety level for the candidates’ transport, the FAA said.


Pfizer, based in the U.S., and BioNTech, based in Germany, have said their vaccine candidate had an efficacy rate of 95 percent in a late-stage clinical trial.

Both companies are awaiting emergency use authorization after submitting a request to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last week.

The move to charter the flights for the vaccine comes as part of Pfizer’s agenda to distribute the vaccine as quickly as possible once it is approved for EUA.

Part of the company’s distribution plan will include existing and additional refrigerated storage sites across the U.S. and Europe. The Journal also reported the plan includes using “dozens of cargo flights and hundreds of truck trips each day.”

Shares of Pfizer and United inched nearly 0.1 percent during Friday’s extended market session.

Pfizer did not respond to a request for comment by The Hill.

— Updated 8:28 p.m.

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