O'Hare Airport

First Air Shipment of COVID-19 Vaccine Arrives in Chicago, Airlines Prep for Distribution

Pfizer is still seeking emergency use approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

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The "first mass air shipment" of COVID-19 vaccines arrived at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport Friday as airlines and pharmaceutical companies continued to prepare for large-scale distribution.

United Airlines carried Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on board a cargo flight from Brussels, Belgium, to O'Hare Airport, according to people familiar with the matter.

United Airlines didn't confirm any details about the flight, but in a statement said, "United Cargo established a COVID Readiness Task Team earlier this summer to help ensure we have the right people, products, services, and partnerships in place to support a vaccine distribution effort on a global scale."

Pfizer is still seeking emergency use approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The pharmaceutical giant completed its phase three trial and found the vaccine to be 95% percent.

Ahead of the approvals for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, pharmaceutical companies, airlines and other parts of the supply chain are preparing for distribution once regulators give a green light, a vast network that will include cold storage to preserve the vaccines, CNBC reported.

Pfizer didn't respond to multiple requests for comment. Spokeswoman Kim Bencker has previously said the company won't ship the vaccine until it wins approval from the FDA for emergency use. 

At his daily coronavirus news briefing Monday, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he believes the shipment was sent to a Pfizer facility near Kenosha, Wisconsin, as the company awaits FDA approval.

Pfizer submitted its application for emergency clearance on Nov. 20, and the FDA is expected to publicly discuss it when the agency's Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee next meets Dec. 10.

Pfizer's vaccine requires a storage temperature of minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. By comparison, Moderna has said its vaccine remains stable at 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature of a standard home or medical refrigerator, for up to 30 days. It can be stored for up to six months at negative 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

The United flight, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, required special approval from federal regulators to carry more dry ice than is normally allowed, the people said. Vaccines are stored at below-freezing temperatures.

Other airlines are also preparing for vaccine shipments.

American Airlines' cargo department last week started trial flights with its pharmaceutical partners from Miami to South America "to stress test the thermal packaging and operational handling process we have created for shipping vaccines," spokeswoman Stacy Day said in a statement. 

One challenge ahead is that air cargo capacity has been limited because of the pandemic. Since airlines have canceled so many flights, there is less aircraft belly space available to transport goods. United and other airlines, however, have begun operating cargo-only flights to help make up for lost passenger revenue.

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