FedEx and UPS are ready and equipped to handle COVID-19 vaccine distribution

The parcel duopoly of Memphis-based FedEx and Atlanta-based UPS respectively announced over the weekend that they have hit the ground running in their efforts to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine.

With the first shipments of COVID-19 vaccines having been transported, FedEx officials said that its FedEx subsidiary is now moving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, on the heels of the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Emergency Use Authorization for the vaccine.

Company officials said that FedEx will be transporting the vaccine through its FedEx Priority Overnight service, which is supported by FedEx Priority Alert advanced monitoring. And they added that FedEx expects vaccine distribution to be balanced among major cargo carriers, with the company collaborating with healthcare customers to gear up for more vaccine shipments, as well transporting vaccine and bioscience shipments, too.

“This is among the most important work in the history of our company, and we’re honored to be a part of the effort to help end this pandemic,” said Raj Subramaniam, president and chief operating officer, FedEx Corp., in a statement. “I am immensely proud of our dedicated team members who continue to go above and beyond to help ensure the safe movement of these critical COVID-19 vaccines, especially during our busiest holiday shipping season to date. This is who we are and what we do at FedEx.”

Going back to the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March, in the United States, FedEx has been very active in its relief efforts leading up to its major role in vaccine distribution, including delivering more than 55 kilotons on personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes more than two billion face masks and more than 9,600 humanitarian aid shipments on a global level.

Over at UPS, company officials said over the weekend that the company will transport the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine within the first days to states designated by Pfizer, as per orders received by the White House’s Operation Warp Speed and the CDC.

And the company added that Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccines will originate from storage sites in Michigan and Wisconsin and then be transported to UPS Worldport facilities in Louisville, where they will be expedited Next Day Air to select destinations, including hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities, to inoculate healthcare workers.  

“This is the moment of truth we’ve been waiting for at UPS,” says Wes Wheeler, president of UPS Healthcare, in a statement. “We have spent months strategizing with Operation Warp Speed officials and our healthcare customers on efficient vaccine logistics, and the time has arrived to put the plan into action.”

A report in the Wall Street Journal noted that the impact of the pandemic on delivery networks cannot be overstated, due largely to the unprecedented surge in e-commerce activity caused by more consumers ordering items online and not going to physical brick-and-mortar locations, which the article said is “leaving little margin for error.” And it added that company executives have made it clear that holiday gifts will not be ahead of vaccine distribution efforts, with delivery networks equipped with the requisite amount of needed capacity to handle the number of expected shipments.   

“We’ve planned for the capacity,” said Richard Smith, president of the Americas for FedEx Express, in the WSJ article. “This is something we are confident will not overwhelm the system.”

That was a key theme addressed by Jerry Hempstead, president of Orlando-based Hempstead consulting earlier this year, which has subsequently proved to be prescient.

Hempstead pointed out that even though parcel networks were already operating in Peak Season-like conditions—and really have been going back to last spring—a vaccine would take precedence, for parcel carriers, over delivering holiday orders to your doorstep. As it should, no question about it.

“When it hits, that is going to take priority for all of the carriers,” he said. “So the vaccine has to board first on the airplanes and the trucks. It is going to divert manpower and….is temperature-controlled.

And Hempstead also explained that it will lead to the need for what he called “lots and lots of trucks and drivers” to deliver the vaccine to myriad distribution points, which will, in turn, put a tremendous amount of stress on the parcel network.

While over-the-road ground capacity is expected to loosen up into the new year, former Robert W. Baird & Co. Ben Hartford explained that capacity, as it relates to the specific needs of the cold chain and storage and general pharmaceutical-related distribution will be key.

“As the vaccine is transported, all eyes will go to airfreight and the lift capacity needed to move this sensitive product in an expedited manner, and we are starting to see air charter and lift capacity consumed on that front.

Looking ahead, Harford explained that that any of the specialty equipment that pertains to housing the vaccine in a temperature-controlled setting—specifically airfreight and lift capacity—will be at a premium well into 2021 amid the global rollout of the vaccine, and he added that the models that are going to play the most direct role, as they relate vaccine distribution, will be the global integrators on the parcel side [FedEx, UPS, and DHL] and international freight forwarders.

About the Author

Jeff Berman, Group News Editor

Jeff Berman is Group News Editor for Logistics Management, Modern Materials Handling, and Supply Chain Management Review. Jeff works and lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, where he covers all aspects of the supply chain, logistics, freight transportation, and materials handling sectors on a daily basis. Contact Jeff Berman