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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

This year, delivery companies are facing two heavy lifts at once: meeting unprecedented demand for holiday shipping while orchestrating complex logistics for coronavirus vaccine distribution.

Why it matters: Even with big investments in technology, infrastructure and new hires, the networks of experienced shipping giants like UPS and FedEx can only handle so much capacity — and 2020 is testing those limits.

  • If their systems get overloaded, something has to give, and it's likely to be that last-minute gift you ordered.
  • "Customers need to realize that [companies] are required to — and should — give priority to the vaccine over your Christmas gift because there's a life being lost every minute if that vaccine is delayed," said Satish Jindel, president of ShipMatrix, a logistics data and consulting firm.
  • FedEx's Regional President of the Americas, Richard W. Smith, tells Axios via email that delivering the vaccine is "among the most important work in the history of our company."

Where it stands: So far, the companies' advance preparation this year is paying off.

  • On-time deliveries are running well ahead of last year's snowy holiday season, per ShipMatrix, despite the pandemic challenges.
  • For the two weeks of Nov. 22 through Dec. 5, including Thanksgiving and Cyber Monday, UPS achieved 96% on-time delivery; FedEx was at 95%, and the U.S. Postal Service was at roughly 93%.
  • “UPS is running one of the most successful peak holiday shipping seasons ever,” the company's new CEO Carol Tomé said this week in a statement.

Zoom in: A big reason for UPS' success so far is that it has been working closely with customers to align their shipping needs with its network capacity — and sticking to those plans.

  • When e-commerce surged earlier this year, UPS added "peak" surcharges for some big customers like Amazon and Best Buy.
  • More recently, it imposed shipping limitations on big retailers like Macy's and Gap to prevent them from overloading UPS facilities.

What's next: It all gets more complicated as soon as the vaccines are ready for shipping. Through Operation Warp Speed, UPS is providing logistics support for eight of the 10 leading vaccines currently in clinical trials.

  • The company has already mapped out supply routes for each of the vaccines, and reserved capacity in its air network, operating hubs and ground operations.
  • It also added new technology like proprietary sensor tags that track and monitor the status — including temperature — of every package in its network.
  • UPS will monitor all vaccine shipments from a new 24/7 command center which collects data and monitors temperature at its customers' sites.
  • "We started working on this when the vaccine companies started working on their clinical trials," Kate Gutmann, senior vice president of UPS' Healthcare and Life Sciences Unit, tells Axios in an interview.

How it works: In the case of Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine, kits containing syringes and PPE are already being delivered to dosing sites now. The vaccine comes next — maintained at super-cold temperatures — followed by extra dry ice shipments to replenish dosing sites.

  • UPS will deliver vaccines in the eastern half of the U.S. and FedEx will handle the west.
  • UPS created a vast "freezer farm" for -80°C storage at its logistics hub in Louisville, where it will also produce more than 24,000 pounds of dry ice per day.
  • Each day UPS will deliver a 40-pound box of dry ice to all Pfizer dosing sites that lack their own freezer capacity.

The bottom line: The pandemic has shipping companies performing a high-stakes juggling act that's testing their resilience.

Go deeper

Jan 29, 2021 - Health

J&J says its one-shot vaccine is 66% effective against moderate to severe COVID

Photo: Thiago Prudêncio/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Johnson & Johnson announced Friday that its single-shot coronavirus vaccine was 66% effective in protecting against moderate to severe COVID-19 disease in Phase 3 trials, which was comprised of nearly 44,000 participants across eight countries.

Between the lines: The vaccine was 72% effective in the U.S., but only 57% effective in South Africa, where a more contagious variant has been spreading. It prevented 85% of severe infections and 100% of hospitalizations and deaths, according to the company.

1 hour ago - Sports

The new faces of NBC's Olympics coverage

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Cy Cyr/PGA Tour via Getty Images

A new(ish) face will be leading NBCUniversal's prime-time coverage of the 2021 Tokyo Olympic Games: veteran sportscaster Mike Tirico.

Why it matters: It's Tirico's first run as prime-time host for the Summer Olympics. Legendary broadcaster Bob Costas hosted 12 Olympic Games between 1988 and 2016 for NBC before handing over the prime-time spot to Tirico in 2018.

Ina Fried, author of Login
1 hour ago - Sports

Behind the scenes at the COVID Olympics

Photo illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios, Photo: Steph Chambers/Getty Images

TOKYO — The COVID rule-breaking was obvious at Friday's opening ceremony, when athletes were clearly visible on TV with masks below their noses, but an athlete tells Axios that the rule-breaking has been going on well before that.

  • It's been happening at least since athletes arrived in the Olympic Village, where masks were dropped below noses and different teams were forced to share buses.

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