Malta might be weeks away from getting a COVID-19 vaccine according to Prime Minister Robert Abela, but mass preparations around the world are already well underway. In fact, the US has already registered its first flight carrying the vaccines.
As airlines all around the world prepare their networks and storages for global distribution of the much-awaited vaccine, a flight carrying the “first mass air shipment” of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine – BNT162b2 – left Brussels and landed at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport last Friday.
It is not yet clear how many doses were actually on board, but the Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Aviation Administration approved the airline to carry nearly seven tonnes of dry ice per flight. This is around five times the normal limit.
Pfizer hasn’t received a green light for its vaccine yet, but after an application submission for emergency clearance on 20th November, a decision is expected to be taken when the Food and Drug Administration next meets on 10th December.
Despite this, charter flights are already positioning doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine around the US, priming for distribution across the nation with “dry rehearsals” of the mass roll-outs.
“As a result of the historic pace of vaccine development through Operation Warp Speed and careful logistics planning, the FAA today is supporting the first mass air shipment of a vaccine,” the governmental body said last weekend.
Pfizer, which developed the vaccine with BioNTech, had just last month boasted that the COVID-19 vaccine has shown to be anywhere between 90% and 94% effective in trials.
A point of debate in the last weeks, however, has been the need for Pfizer’s candidate to be stored in a temperature of -70°C. This is significantly lower than the typical 2 to 8°C storage requirements for vaccines…. and colder than even some of the coldest winter days in Antarctica.
Distributing vaccines in these conditions “is possible, but it’s definitely going to be much more expensive and more difficult,” vaccine innovation veteran Debra Kristensen told NPR a couple of weeks ago.
Addressing this, Pfizer developed a suitcase-sized box – already nicknamed “the pizza box” – that uses dry ice to keep between 1,000 and 5,000 doses at the required temperature for 15 days.
Frontrunner competitors Moderna, on the other hand, have also reported an effective rate of around 95%, but only requires a storage temperature of around -20°C, which is much closer to regular household freezers.
Meanwhile, Malta has been allocated 500,000 doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, with the government managing to double a previous EU distribution agreement. But that’s not all.
“We’ve been allocated 500,000 doses from Pfizer alone… and hundreds of thousands of other doses from other vaccine developers,” Health Minister Chris Fearne confirmed just this weekend. “If they all arrive, we’ll have more than enough for the entire Maltese population which is a good problem to have.”
Fearne reiterated that the Pfizer vaccine will initially be allocated to people older than 80, doctors, nurses, police officers, pharmacists, other front-liners, and will be delivered over two doses.
“They will receive individual appointments for both doses to ensure they won’t have to queue up for the vaccine,” Fearne continued. “We have everything, including the cold storage, prepared and we’re awaiting the regulators to scrutinise the vaccine. If the result is positive, then we’ll start vaccinating people at the start of the year.”
With the end of 2020 just around the corner and the promise of a COVID-19 vaccine seeming to finally be coming to fruition, 2021 might just be the big break many of us have been anticipating for so long.
What do you make of this latest update? Are you planning on getting vaccinated as soon as COVID-19 vaccines like Pfizer’s get the green light?
Featured Image Map Inset: CNN