How 2 airlines transported the COVID-19 vaccine to some of the farthest regions of the world

Alaska Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Alaska Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Alaska Airlines and Singapore Airlines were tasked with transporting the vaccine to their geographically-challenged homelands.
  • The first doses arrived in remote Alaskan communities less than three days after the first trucks left Kalamazoo, Michigan while Singapore became the first country to receive the vaccine one week later.
  • Passenger airlines and cargo carriers alike have been essential in getting the vaccine to the world's furthest reaches. 
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The first doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine left Kalamazoo, Michigan on December 13 and within days, even the most remote locales were able to begin inoculations thanks to the coordinated efforts of freight forwarders, shippers, airlines, and even law enforcement agencies

Cargo carriers UPS Airlines and FedEx Express had the honor of flying the first doses from Michigan but passenger airlines also proved to be an integral part of the aerial vaccine distribution network. United Airlines, for example, flew the first US doses in from Belgium shortly after Thanksgiving, weeks before the Food and Drug Administration gave the drug its OK. 

Read more: 6 cargo airlines and freight operators poised to win big as Moderna follows Pfizer toward FDA approval for its COVID-19 vaccine

Singapore Airlines and Alaska Airlines have also been tasked with flying the vaccine but both have a more unique mandate of delivering the pandemic-ending drugs to their homelands. Both Singapore and Alaska are about as far from Pfizer's plants in Brussels and Michigan as one can get, making air travel the only viable option. 

But geography notwithstanding, the two regions were able to receive their first doses of Pfizer's landmark vaccine within days of its emergency authorization thanks to their respective airlines.

Here's how they did it. 

Singapore Airlines deployed its cargo freighters to Europe to bring back the vaccine.
Singapore Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Singapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
The Boeing 747-400F, as the largest aircraft in Singapore's cargo fleet, was the aircraft of choice, with the shipment easily sliding through its unique nose door not found on many other freighters.
Singapore Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Singapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Read more: Boeing ending production of the 747 means cargo carriers will lose a key feature and be left scrambling when it's gone

The Jumbo Jet has served as a lifeline to Singapore during the pandemic, bringing food and supplies to the island-nation whose borders are largely closed to the outside world. Now, it's bringing home the COVID-19 vaccine.
Singapore Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Singapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
Singapore is the first Asian country to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, making the arrival even more historic.
Singapore Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Singapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
The shipment departed Brussels on December 20 and arrived in Singapore nearly 16 hours later after a quick fuel stop in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates. No time was wasted as the shipment received priority treatment on both ends.
Singapore Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Singapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Source: FlightAware

In preparation for the flight, Singapore Airlines had performed a dry run on the Brussels-Singapore route to ensure a smooth flight but also monitor the dry ice onboard.
Singapore Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Singapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
Copious amounts of dry ice are required to keep Pfizer's vaccine at the -94 degrees Fahrenheit temperature it requires.
Singapore Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Singapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Source: Inside the COVID-19 vaccine airlift: How cargo carriers plan to distribute the world's soon-to-be most valuable drugs to market

Each of these boxes is packed with at least 20 kilograms of dry ice to keep the vaccine at its required temperature.
Singapore Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Singapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
If the temperature isn't maintained, the vaccine can spoil and become ineffective, a risk that Pfizer nor its customers can allow since every dose of the vaccine is vital to ending the pandemic.
Singapore Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Singapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
The problem faced by airlines, however, is that dry ice sublimates to carbon dioxide, which can incapacitate the crew. It's why dry ice is considered a dangerous good in aviation.
Singapore Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Singapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
But airlines have been turning to regulators and manufacturers to get revised dry ice limits to carry as much vaccine as possible. United Airlines, for example, was granted permission to fly up to five times more vaccine by the Federal Aviation Administration than what would've normally been allowed.
Singapore Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Singapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Read More: How United Airlines overcame one of the largest limitations to transporting Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine to the US

Dry ice limitations are also the reason why this Boeing 747 wasn't filled to the brim with vaccine as regulations wouldn't allow it, making transport to remote regions like Southeast Asia all the more difficult.
Singapore Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Singapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
Multiple flights will likely be required to inoculate the entire country of five million as two doses are required.
Singapore Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Singapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
Once in Singapore, the vaccine was immediately moved to a cold storage facility to await transport to the country's hospitals and inoculation centers.
Singapore Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Singapore Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
On the other side of the world in the US, Alaska Airlines was tasked with bringing the vaccines to rural communities across its namesake state.
Alaska Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Alaska Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
Alaska has seen over 40,000 cases of COVID-19 with nearly 200 deaths, which the vaccine aims to prevent.
Alaska Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Alaska Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Source: Alaska Department of Health and Social Services

Alaska's harsh geography makes transporting the vaccine all the more difficult as not all cities are connected by road to Anchorage, the state's primary logistical hub.
Alaska Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Alaska Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
"The state of Alaska is unique in that 80% of communities are only accessible by air or water and most vaccines must be distributed by plane," Alaska Airlines wrote in a blog post.
Alaska Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Alaska Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Source: Alaska Airlines

Alaska frequently operates multi-leg flights, known as the "milk run," which serves some of the state's smallest and most remote communities as a lifeline transporting food, supplies, and people.
Alaska Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Alaska Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
The shortest flight is just 31 miles in duration between Petersburg and Wrangell. The route is also the shortest operated by a major airline in the US.
Alaska Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Alaska Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
Nearly every city on Alaska's route map in the 49th state will receive the vaccine from the airline, a spokesperson told Business Insider, from Barrow to the Aleutian Islands.
Alaska Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Alaska Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
And the box designed by Pfizer and Softbox can be loaded onto any of Alaska's passenger or cargo planes.
Alaska Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Alaska Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.
Some doses were transferred onto even smaller planes to be flown across the Alaskan Bush where residents drove up on jet skis to receive their dose.
Alaska Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Alaska Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Source: Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation

Despite the hurdles, remote cities like Kodiak were able to receive doses as early as December 15, just two days after the first trucks departed Pfizer's Kalamazoo facility.
Alaska Airlines COVID-19 Vaccine
Alaska Airlines transporting the COVID-19 vaccine.

Source: Alaska Airlines

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