COVID vaccine: How United Airlines transports doses quickly, safely

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Getting COVID-19 vaccines across the country is a difficult task. It's a task that workers here in Chicago play a pivotal role in completing.

ABC 7 got a behind the scenes look at how United Airlines is fulfilling that mission, and how they're prepared to ramp up their efforts even more.

Just before 2 p.m. Friday, a massive Boeing 777 arrived from Tokyo. It can hold hundreds of thousands of doses of coronavirus vaccine.

United gave ABC 7 a look at how the unloading process works once the plane pulls in. The cargo involved is all freight, but, "it's the same process whether it's vaccines or freight. With the vaccines we just have a lot more speed and a lot more focus," said United Cargo Managing Director Chris Busch.

BEHIND THE SCENES | How United Airlines transports COVID-19 vaccines


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United Airlines shared this video showing how its cargo planes transport the vaccine. NOTE: No vaccine is actually on board.



It's Busch's job to make sure vaccines are transported safely and speedily from around the world to their destination here in Chicago or anywhere in the United States. Up inside the belly of the plane is where those vaccines are stored during those long haul international flights. Temperature controlled containers are clamped down to the floor.

Those special cold shipping units are quickly unloaded and synchronized with the next step of transport.

"As soon as we bring it out of the aircraft, we usually bring it right through the facility, and usually there's a truck waiting. Especially with the vaccine shipments everything is coordinated to be very precise," Busch said.

If there's any delay, United can store the vaccines in its cold storage areas right within their warehouse at O'Hare Airport.

United was the first carrier to bring the Pfizer vaccine from Brussels to Chicago and since then, they've expanded.

"You could take a flight today and there may be a vaccine below," Busch said.

And the impact of their work isn't lost on the architect of life saving logistics.

"To be able to say that we were part of bringing things back to normal, don't know what normal will be, at least we're actively helping bring the world back to normal and to me that's just amazing to be able to tell my kids," Busch said.

It's all a part of that chain of vaccine makers, plane operators, truck drivers, doctors and nurses who are working to vaccinate the world and stop the spread of COVID-19.
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