Photos show how the first doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine got from Michigan into the arms of healthcare workers

Thomas Pallini
·6 min read
Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Transporting Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. Michael Clevenger - Pool and MARK LENNIHAN/POOL/AFPGetty
  • The first doses of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine left Michigan on Sunday bound for hospitals across the US.

  • A fleet of trucks and airplanes, accompanied by armed guards, ensured that the vaccine was quickly and safely transported.

  • The first shot was given in New York on Monday, just days after the Food and Drug Administration's emergency authorization on Friday. 

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The first COVID-19 vaccine was given emergency authorization in the US on Friday and no time was wasted in getting it to the public. Just three days passed before the first person was inoculated, kicking off a nationwide vaccination campaign that aims to end this pandemic in the new year. 

Pfizer's vaccine was first transported to the US in late November and brought to the company's Kalamazoo, Michigan facility. Shippers descended on the facility over the weekend with trucks, airplanes, and armed guards to get the first doses to hospitals across the country quickly and safely. 

By Monday morning, the vaccine was already ready for its first recipients, with New York's Northwell Health declaring itself the first to give the drug to frontline workers. Air cargo carriers, passenger airlines, and over-the-road freight companies had been preparing for this effort for months by overhauling their pharmaceutical transport capabilities and creating protocols specifically for transporting the Pfizer vaccine. 

Read more: 5 airlines with the authority to carry unprecedented amounts of dry ice - a key advantage for capitalizing on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Here's how Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine gets from Michigan into your bloodstream. 

Pfizer's Kalamazoo facility was a beehive of activity over the weekend following Friday's emergency authorization of the first COVID-19 vaccine from the Food and Drug Administration.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Pfizer's Kalamazoo, Michigan facility. JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty

The authorization was expected and Pfizer had been preparing for a nationwide rollout.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Morry Gash - Pool/Getty

Workers spent the weekend preparing for the first shipments, which departed on Sunday.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Morry Gash - Pool/Getty

Just weeks prior to the authorization, a United Airlines Boeing 777-200 brought the first doses of the vaccine into the US from Brussels, Belgium on a chartered flight.

United Airlines Boeing 777
A United Airlines Boeing 777-200. Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto/Getty Images

United had overcome one of the largest limitations to flying Pfizer's vaccine, its excessive dry ice requirements, with the help of the Federal Aviation Administration. by receiving authorization to carry five times the normal amount of dry ice that the airline could normally.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Morry Gash - Pool/Getty

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

Dry ice is considered a dangerous good in aviation as it sublimates into carbon dioxide, which can incapacitate the crew if not properly managed.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Stephen Maturen/Getty

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

Each shipment is packed with over 20 kilograms of dry ice to keep the vaccine at its ideal storage temperature of -94 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Morry Gash - Pool/Getty

Any higher and the vaccine can become ineffective and every dose counts towards ending the pandemic.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Morry Gash - Pool/Getty

Its temperature requirement is among the largest hurdles in transporting the Pfizer vaccine, with competing vaccines from Moderna and Johnson & Johnson having less strict requirements.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Morry Gash - Pool/Getty

The first step of the transportation process is then loading the shipments onto refrigerated trucks.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Morry Gash - Pool/Getty

Some trucks will go to the nearby airport while others will travel across the country. Trucks have a higher tolerance for dry ice shipments since the truck is separate from the trailer.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Rey Del Rio/Getty

Then, it's time to finally hit the road!

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Morry Gash - Pool/Getty

In just a few hours, these vaccines will travel across the US in preparation for the first inoculations the next day.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty

US Marshals provided escorts for the vaccine while on the road.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Morry Gash - Pool/Getty

The vaccine is a huge target for theft due to the drug's high importance.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Morry Gash - Pool/Getty

But the first convoy encountered no issues along the route to Lansing's Capital Region International Airport and Grand Rapids' Gerald R. Ford International Airport where aircraft awaited to take the vaccine onwards.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP/Getty

Kalamazoo has its own airport but those in Lansing and Grand Rapids are the closest with service from the large cargo airlines like UPS Airlines and FedEx Express.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Rey Del Rio/Getty

US Marshals were also on hand at the airport as the massive containers were loaded onto the Boeing 757-200F, alongside standard boxes.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Rey Del Rio/Getty

But while flying with iPhone orders and Amazon purchases, airlines have stated they'll give the vaccine priority.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Rey Del Rio/Getty

Vaccines and other pharma products are already given priority due to their perishable natures.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Rey Del Rio/Getty

Captaining the UPS flight was Houston Mills, UPS' vice president of flight operations & safety.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Michael Clevenger - Pool/Getty

Source: Linkedin and WDRB

Mills is a Marine Corps veteran who flew F-18 fighter jets during the Gulf War.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Michael Clevenger - Pool/Getty

Source: Linkedin and WDRB

And it's off to the UPS Worldport in Louisville, Kentucky, where the shipments will be distributed across the UPS network.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Michael Clevenger - Pool/Getty

After a quick 56-minute flight south, the jet arrived in Louisville after an uneventful flight. The FAA has said it will give priority to vaccine flights moving forward to ensure no issues.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Michael Clevenger - Pool/Getty

Source: FlightAware

Now in Louisville, the shipments can be sorted onto other aircraft and trucks. UPS Airlines flies across the US and as far as Dubai from Louisville with Asian cities just a one-stop flight away via Anchorage.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Michael Clevenger - Pool/Getty

UPS Airlines alone has a fleet of over 275 aircraft, with the largest being the Boeing 747-8F.

UPS Airlines Boeing 747-8F
A UPS Airlines Boeing 747-8F aircraft. Thiago B Trevisan / Shutterstock.com

Source: Planespotters.net

Once they arrive at their destinations, the vaccines are loaded onto trucks like this one, the standard brown UPS delivery truck.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport UPS
ANDREJ IVANOV/AFP/Getty

Hospitals around the US received the vaccine by Monday with the first inoculations occurring on Monday morning.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Stephen Maturen/Getty

Read More: Meet Sandra Lindsay, a nurse in New York City who was the first person in America to get the COVID-19 vaccine

Hospitals went from receiving their first known COVID-19 patients to receiving the vaccine in less than a year.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
Stephen Maturen/Getty

Pop open the box and this is what you'll find, a small 5-dose vial of vaccine.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. MARK LENNIHAN/POOL/AFP/Getty

In New York, nurse Sandra Lindsay was the first to receive the shot. Healthcare workers and the elderly will be the first to receive the shot.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
MARK LENNIHAN/POOL/AFP/Getty

Source: Northwell Health

But the job isn't over as Lyndsay will have to come back in 21 days for a follow-up shot. And the whole logistical cycle begins again.

Pfizer Vaccine Transport
MARK LENNIHAN/POOL/AFP/Getty

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