Part of the Biden administration’s new strategy on allocating COVID-19 vaccines targets rural communities, which have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. In line with that goal as well as the imperative to speed vaccines to remote areas worldwide, major carriers have adopted innovative approaches to ensure that people don’t have to travel far to get the vaccine from a trusted source.

Since late last year, UPS (NYSE: UPS) and FedEx (NYSE: FDX) have made major adjustments to get COVID-19 vaccines in the hands of remote medical workers both domestically and globally.

Related: US will share vaccines and raw materials with other countries

Timing is everything

Ironically, a couple months before the pandemic exploded, UPS started a separate division, UPS Healthcare. It launched in January 2020. The goal was to focus on complex medical products like vaccines, as well as many others. Then the pandemic hit the U.S. hard that spring.

“We had this major disruption. So most of our attention was taking our resources and focusing on testing,” Dan Gagnon, vice president of global healthcare strategy and marketing at UPS, told FreightWaves. “We were helping the federal government set up national test sites, and we were helping states set up their COVID testing sites. We put up the tents, we’d get the kits to them, we’d collect the samples and bring them back to the labs.”

Once UPS shifted to vaccine delivery mode in December 2020, however, the company had to overcome a different but equally unique set of supply chain issues.

Cold chain challenges

According to the Centers for Disease Control, some COVID-19 vaccines, like those from Pfizer and Moderna, must stay frozen in dry ice during transport. They must also be stored in ultra-cold freezers for the long term once they arrive at their locations. Otherwise, they will denature and become useless.

UPS delivers COVID-19 vaccines to Whiteriver, Arizona. (Photo: UPS)

To meet that need, the company sent chaser boxes of dry ice with each vaccine delivery. UPS invested in freezer farms to be able to continue supplying dry ice to places with little or no cold storage. The company has been sourcing the dry ice locally but has also purchased dry ice machines, making almost 25,000 pounds a day. UPS has also donated 21 mobile freezers to several countries and the Navajo Nation, and it has provided free logistics services to some poorer countries.

“I think in a lot of these lower- and middle-income countries the cold chain is very broken,” Gagnon said. “So if you have vaccines … they are being moved on donkeys in regular Igloo coolers that have dry ice. There’s less attention being put on that move.”

FedEx has also made significant cold chain adjustments, doubling its dry ice capacity and leveraging contingency cold storage facilities. According to the company’s website, it has upgraded many of its 90 cold chain facilities around the world as well, mainly by investing in super-freezers to ensure ultra-cold storage. Some of this started during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak.

“Partially because of H1N1, we started building out and adding to our cold chain infrastructure,” FedEx founder Fred Smith said in an article in the Daily Memphian.

“Fortunately, that H1N1 swine flu never rose to the level of global pandemic like COVID-19, but I think it was a wake-up call that we needed to invest more in the capabilities for cold storage, specialty solutions, cold chain, monitoring and intervention capabilities,” Smith added.

Send in the drones

UPS has also partnered with companies like Zipline to take advantage of drone technology. Gagnon said they’re a great solution for remote vaccine deliveries because the equipment is consistent, fast, direct and cost-effective for the company and communities.

“They work in mountainous areas where instead of going around a mountain you can go over it,” Gagnon explained. “Any large bodies of water, which you would have to drive around, you can just go over them. So there are some places where it just makes sense.”

UPS has moved almost 630,000 vaccine doses into Ghana, and about 25,000 of those have been delivered by drone. Gagon added that UPS has drone deliveries planned for other countries as well.

Unforeseen challenges

As the pandemic unfolded, Gagnon realized that the biggest issue became planning rather than transportation and logistics. With so many partners coming to the table — manufacturers, government entities paying for the vaccines and organizations responsible for supply chains — the questions got complicated.

“Are we going to use a distributor? When do they get an order for vaccines? How are the states going to order [the vaccines]?” Gagnon asked himself. “If I have only a million vaccines on Tuesday, who’s going to get the first shot at them? How do they get allocated? Once the vaccines are out, how are we tracking them?”

Related: North Dakota to give Canadian truckers COVID-19 vaccines

Project management, transparency and communication were the answers. This included daily calls with Operation Warp Speed, a public-private partnership initiated by the U.S. government to facilitate and accelerate the development, manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, as well as weekly calls with state leaders regarding vaccination progress.


The company also set up UPS Premier, a program in which every vaccine box has a unique tracking tag. All of this planning has helped the company account for every vaccine delivery each step of the way.

FedEx has implemented similar programs. The company has been utilizing its SenseAware ID monitoring technology and Priority Alert service to track vaccine shipments as they move through the FedEx Express network in the U.S. Dedicated customer support agents monitor vaccine shipments and intervene if issues such as weather, traffic congestion or customs clearance cause delays and threaten delivery times.

The company has moved more than 10,000 COVID-19 humanitarian aid shipments since January 2020 and has committed $4 million in cash and in-kind transportation support to help nonprofits distribute vaccines to under-resourced communities around the world.

FedEx employee packing dry ice in a COVID-19 vaccine shipment. (Photo: FedEx)

FedEx has donated one of its Boeing 777F charter flights to deliver more than 3,400 oxygen concentrators, converters and nearly 265,000 KN95 masks to India, which is facing a new surge of COVID-19 cases.

“The devastating humanitarian crisis in India requires relief from around the world, and it is our mission to deliver critical aid needed to help alleviate suffering,” FedEx President and COO Raj Subramaniam said in a May 6 company bulletin.

Strength in numbers

Because of their huge presence, UPS’ 500,000 employees have seen many people struggling through the pandemic. Gagnon said they take the situation personally, going above and beyond to deliver the vaccines.

One example was when a snowstorm grounded flights at Boston’s Logan Airport.

“We had employees get into the bellies of these aircraft, get the packages out and move them to the point-of-care facilities that were going to administer the vaccines,” Gagnon recalled. “This was all without the normal operations running. It was quite amazing.”

Among the dedicated employees is veteran UPS driver Caroline Kebschull. For the past six years, her run has taken her to remote Ocracoke Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It takes Kebschull almost three hours to get there each day from her base in Manteo, North Carolina — an hour-and-a-half drive to Hatteras Island, followed by an hourlong ferry ride to Ocracoke Island, then a 15-minute drive to the village of Ocracoke.

Related: An-124 super freighter delivers machinery for US vaccine fill plant

Kebschull told FreightWaves there’s only one medical clinic on the island, which serves about 1,000 people. There is an airport, but only for small aircraft, and there’s just one grocery store. Kebschull understands how important ground transportation is for the Ocracoke community.

“They really rely on UPS as well as the Postal Service and FedEx to get products to the island,” she said.

Two days a week, her deliveries include COVID vaccines, and Kebschull said she hasn’t missed any of those deliveries, despite occasional delays due to weather or Coast Guard inspections.

Track record

According to Gagnon, about 250 million COVID vaccine doses have been delivered through the UPS network to 92 countries, with the majority of them in the U.S. More than 99% of the vaccines have arrived at the proper temperature and ready for use.

“This is by far the biggest event that we have ever had to deal with. The UPS Healthcare division, COVID has put us smack in the middle of it. To some degree, we were able to show the world how much expertise we have.”

FedEx crews continue to support the global vaccine supply chain in more than 25 countries. The company has delivered more than 100 million doses to communities in the 50 states and U.S. territories alone.

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Nick Austin.

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