United Airlines has begun shuttling doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine across the U.S. as the drugmaker awaits regulatory approval to begin distribution, The Wall Street Journal has reported. 

The massive undertaking, which involves storing the vaccine at an extremely low temperature for a prolonged period, has been months in the making. 

Without confirming the report, Josh Earnest, chief communications officer for United, more broadly told Cheddar, "Over the summer, as we were reading about the development of the vaccine, we recognized that the transport of that vaccine was going to be an incredible logistical, safety, and engineering challenge."

But it was a challenge that United has been preparing for since the beginning of the pandemic when it quickly ramped up cargo-only flights to make up for the drop off in international travel. The airline has since operated more than 8,200 cargo-only flights carrying a total of 555 million pounds.

It's also been working closely with vaccine makers and regulators to prepare their planes for the complex task of hauling vaccines over a world-wide distribution network. 

Earnest said United's 777-200 wide-body aircraft can carry a million doses on a single flight, but getting to this capacity required some regulatory and engineering tweaks. 

Because the Pfizer vaccine must be stored at a temperature of -94 degrees Fahrenheit, a million doses would require 15,000 pounds of dry ice. Typically the plane would only be allowed to carry 3,000 pounds of dry ice, but United worked with regulators to increase that limit by reducing the sublimation rate, which is basically how quickly the dry ice evaporates. 

That means keeping the cargo holds extra cold, Earnest said.

Whether or not United ends up carrying that many doses per flight remains to be seen, but the airline is positioning itself to serve as a crucial link in the U.S. distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. 

"It's hard to tell right now exactly what the demand is going to be, but we're working with vaccine makers around the world because we do have an incredible footprint here in the United States," Earnest said. "If you think about where our hubs are, we've got large logistical operations; we've got planes and pilots and ground equipment in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Newark, New Jersey, Houston. These are all going to be important distribution points."

While hopes for a vaccine have buoyed markets and business confidence, Earnest pointed out that much still depends on whether the federal government passes a stimulus package. 

"We are hopeful that policymakers here in the United States will be able to mobilize an economic assistance package that we know our economy really needs," he said. "The recovery of our business is going to be dependent on the recovery of the broader economy, not just here in the United States but around the world."

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