During last month’s historic first deliveries of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, only 99 miles separated the Pfizer distribution facility and the University of Michigan’s hospital, one of the healthcare facilities selected by Operation Warp Speed to receive those first-day deliveries.
While those first shipments were loaded for trips short and long across the country, there were other packages of vaccines beginning a less heralded – yet more complicated – journey. Some of these left the wintertime Pfizer distribution centers in Michigan and Wisconsin to begin their voyage across the Pacific to U.S. territories like American Samoa, Guam and the Mariana Islands.
Locales better known for swaying palm trees, blue water atolls and South Pacific breezes. For vaccines needing to stay at minus 80 C for the duration of their lifecycle, UPS ingenuity and know-how were put to the test.
Long, strange trips
UPS routinely makes deliveries to the island territories, but the route is anything but routine. UPS Freight Forwarding, in coordination with UPS Express Critical, ensured the maze of connections were made.
“There is only one flight per week to American Samoa,” said Joey Hanson, UPS Global Freight Forwarding Segment Resource Group manager. “Three shipments of vaccines and supplemental dry ice had to come together and make it on that one flight.”
Unlike many destinations that utilize UPS aircraft for overseas deliveries, many freight and special delivery movements like vaccines and other express critical shipments utilize available lift on commercial airlines to supplement the final legs of trips to smaller or less traveled to locations.
Technology and good old-fashioned relationships
Merging shipments in transit, moving with multiple airlines from different origins and coordinating the dance to arrive as a unified delivery takes skill.
“With these non-traditional locations, there are fewer wide-body aircraft to handle shipments. We work with the airlines and utilize the relationships we’ve built,” Joey said. For example, airlines stay in constant contact with UPS, making phone calls and inspecting vaccine shipping containers, providing additional attention to detail.
These relationships don’t just happen. They are forged over time and highlight the importance of the work done by the Express Critical group.
“From our side, relationships and real-time tracking, geo-fencing, monitoring for deviations with real-time updates from the airlines is crucial,” Joey said. “We can’t just scan the shipments like we can in the UPS system.”
Proprietary technology is also part of the equation. SENTRY, the UPS/Marken solution provides real-time, track and trace capability through custom-designed software that monitors and reports a shipment’s location and temperature, a critical element for vaccine deliveries.
The experience and learning UPS is gathering from these first complex movements will play an important role in even more challenging and sophisticated coordination needed in the near future.
Delivering what matters to underserved populations
As humanitarian deliveries of vaccines come closer to reality, UPS will lean heavily on its experience in far-flung territories. Serving developing countries and underserved populations will require even more creative approaches to leveraging relationships, working through customs with the help of UPS’s Public Affairs group and relying on the expertise of UPSers.
“During the greatest healthcare crisis of our lifetime, we are on the job and delivering what matters to all corners of the world,” said Wes Wheeler, president of UPS Healthcare.