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UPS Healthcare President On Leading A Historic Vaccine Delivery Effort

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This morning, at a Pfizer plant in Michigan, the first doses of the first COVID-19 vaccine were packed up and sent out for distribution. This comes at a critical time as the death toll here in the United States nears 300,000. The Food and Drug Administration gave emergency authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Friday, setting the process in motion. And yesterday, a CDC committee voted to recommend the vaccine for use for people 16 or older.

Now those vaccines must travel at extremely cold temperatures across the country to distribution centers in all 50 states. That task is in the hands of FedEx and UPS, and we are joined now by the president of UPS Healthcare, Wes Wheeler. He'll be leading this effort for the company.

Mr. Wheeler, thank you so much for being with us during this incredibly busy time.

WES WHEELER: Thank you very much, Michel - glad to be here.

MARTIN: So start with the process. What exactly happened this morning? Doses of the vaccine were packed up at a Pfizer facility in Michigan - and then what?

WHEELER: Well, as you said, the packaging started yesterday. And they needed all night and early into the morning this morning to start packing out the trailers. We had two trailers there this morning ready for pack-out. They emerged out of the Pfizer facility at about 9 o'clock this morning. We brought them over to a nearby airport. We had an aircraft standing by specifically for this shipment this morning, given it is Sunday. And they flew here and arrived at about 12:10 here in Louisville at our Worldport facility in Kentucky.

MARTIN: And we've heard a lot about the fact that these vaccines have to be stored at extremely cold temperatures - around negative 94 degrees Fahrenheit. How are you managing that?

WHEELER: Well, this has been in the works for a very long time. You know, Pfizer made a decision a long time ago that because the vaccine is an extremely fragile molecule that they would keep this stored and moved at minus 94 Fahrenheit. The only way to do that in transit is with dry ice.

And so they designed a special package, which we showed the president's vaccine task force this past week, which has 50 pounds of dry ice - has some below, some above the payload in the middle with the trays of vaccine vials are inside, very well protected, very well insulated. Then, on top of the box, they have a GPS tracking device and a temperature probe that goes into the payload. So we're able to see here from the Worldport Command Center that we built the temperature and the location of every one of these vaccine boxes.

MARTIN: So how long will it take for these shipments to get to distribution centers?

WHEELER: They will be at all locations by tomorrow morning, 10:30.

MARTIN: Wow. And how do you keep them secure along the way? I understand that you can track their whereabouts, but what about the receiving end, the hospitals? Can they track their specific delivery?

WHEELER: Well, yes. I mean, our job starts with - starts at Pfizer, ends when we have an approved person with a government ID showing us their ID at the endpoint. So that's where our job stops. So between that point of time, we have total control of the network. So the trailers that come down or the aircraft that comes down to our Worldport facilities is very closely monitored. We have a GPS tracker on those as well. We watch them carefully. When they get here, they're inside the confines of our facility, which is the massive headquarters for our UPS airline. And from there, of course, they get shipped on UPS aircraft all across the country and then into our gateway and hub facilities with the drivers are waiting there. And, of course, the drivers are also all UPS employees.

MARTIN: And how do you keep them secure along the way? I mean, there's been some sort of craziness this season, even with less valuable items, as I'm sure you've heard. I don't mean - we need to...

WHEELER: Yes, of course.

MARTIN: We don't need to go into the details - but, you know, video gaming systems and things of that sort. I mean, how do you keep these things secure?

WHEELER: Well, we developed the technology early this year called the UPS Premier Silver and Gold. The Premier Gold is a small - very small label that goes onto each package, and the label has inside it a Bluetooth device and three radios. And when that - and every package will have one of these affixed to it.

And as soon as these facilities' packages arrive in one of our facilities - doesn't matter whether it's this one here or any of our hubs around the country - we can actually see it. And so it gives you an instant read on exactly where it is. So in terms of security, we have eyes on these packages the whole way through. We can see them anytime, anywhere within 10 feet.

MARTIN: So before we let you go, you know, this is a huge and historic task. Do you mind if I ask - has that sunk in? Like, how are you thinking about this, and how are you doing?

WHEELER: Well, we work really closely with Operation Warp Speed. You probably know that. We've been part of that team since the very beginning. And we - they've all become - it's become like a family. We work together so much now. We're on calls almost every other hour. I'm on the calls with General Perna himself. And we've become very close during this time. And yesterday, I think it was put very well by General Sharpsten - that said that sleep is now not an option.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

WHEELER: So we are - I think we're so caught up with doing this work right now and so excited about it and so anxious about it, making it work for this country and the world that we haven't even thought about the impact yet to ourselves personally.

MARTIN: Well, I hope we get to talk again soon so I can hear how it feels when you finally let it all sink in.

WHEELER: Michel, we're ready. We're ready. We're very confident. We're very, very pleased and proud to be part of this, all the UPSers here working very hard to make this work.

MARTIN: Wes Wheeler is the president of UPS Healthcare.

Mr. Wheeler, thank you so much for your hard work and the work of your team. And thank you for being with us today.

WHEELER: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.