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An inside look at how coronavirus vaccines will be distributed

Companies prepare for COVID vaccine distribution
Airlines and shipping companies prepare for COVID-19 vaccine distribution 02:39

Some 40 million doses of coronavirus vaccine are already being produced. As soon as the Food and Drug Administration approves, they'll start shipping.

"This is going to be one of the most challenging public health distribution efforts we've seen," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

Complicating the effort, the Pfizer vaccine must be kept at -94 degrees Fahrenheit and is shipped in batches of about 1,000 doses packed in specialized containers cooled by dry ice.

"Every box will have a monitor that goes with it, so we'll be able to monitor not only the temperature but where the shipments are going," said Mike Parra, CEO of DHL Express Americas.

DHL will handle international shipments of vaccines, moving them from the factory to an airport under guard.

"No one wants to fail," said Parra. "Everybody knows that this vaccine is basically a source of life."

DHL showed CBS News its operation at Miami International Airport where vaccine shipments will temporarily be stored in freezers, and be topped off with dry ice before being loaded onto planes and sent to South America. Upon landing, those vaccines will be put on trucks and delivered.

U.S. airlines will also play a key role. United Airlines flew its first shipment of Pfizer's vaccine last week. Moderna's vaccine will be easier to move as it doesn't need to be stored at such a low temperature. Companies like FedEx will be part of the effort to quickly get the vials from central shipping hubs out to cities and states.

"It's going to be hard to imagine this going off without a hitch, that there likely are unanticipated issues that are going to arise when you're shipping that many vaccine doses all around the country," Adalja.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is meeting on Tuesday to vote on guidelines on who will get the first shot in the arm, but the initial Pfizer shipments of vaccines are likely headed for major hospitals and large clinics that have the ability to keep it very cold and the volume of patients to dole out 1,000 doses per box. It will expand once there's enough vaccine supply.

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