Key Points

  • The first mass air shipment of a COVID-19 vaccine is underway, with Pfizer's and BioNTech's BNT162b2 shipping from Belgium to the U.S.
  • Pfizer and BioNTech await FDA emergency use authorization (EUA) for their COVID-19 vaccine.
  • The pre-positioning of the vaccine at U.S. distribution hubs should speed up delivery to administration sites if BNT162b2 wins EUA.

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Less than nine months ago, the World Health Organization officially declared the outbreak of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 a global pandemic. Several biopharmaceutical companies had already begun to develop experimental vaccines for COVID-19. 

Fast-forward to today. One of those COVID-19 vaccine candidates is already shipping. Here's what this milestone means -- and doesn't mean.

Jet flying over airport

Image source: Getty Images.

What's happening

The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that United Airlines had initiated charter flights to transport BNT162b2, the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) and BioNTech (NASDAQ:BNTX). Over the weekend, other news organizations reported confirmation by the Federal Aviation Administration of the "first mass air shipment" of a COVID vaccine.

Doses of BNT162b2 are being flown from Belgium, where Pfizer operates a manufacturing facility, to Chicago. But that's just the first stop. From there, the COVID vaccine will be delivered to distribution hubs across the U.S.

BNT162b2 requires ultra-cold storage. Pfizer and BioNTech developed temperature-controlled thermal shippers that use dry ice to maintain temperatures of around minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit for up to 10 days. The FAA reportedly gave permission for United Airlines' cargo planes to carry 15,000 pounds of dry ice per flight -- five times more than is normally allowed.

What it means and doesn't mean

This major transportation initiative is definitely a key milestone in the race to bring a coronavirus vaccine to the public. However, it doesn't mean that Pfizer and BioNTech have received any kind of U.S. authorization to make BNT162b2 available to Americans yet.

The two drugmakers filed for emergency use authorization (EUA) with the Food and Drug Administration for BNT162b2 on Nov. 20. The FDA has scheduled an advisory committee meeting for Dec. 10 to review the EUA filing. The agency will make its decision shortly after that meeting.

Why did Pfizer begin shipping BNT162b2 weeks before a potential EUA? The COVID vaccine can't be delivered to healthcare providers yet. However, it can be pre-positioned at hubs to allow that last distribution phase to start sooner, when and if BNT162b2 is given authorization. 

Pfizer stated on Nov. 20 that it planned to primarily ship from its Kalamazoo, Michigan, manufacturing site directly to the healthcare sites where its vaccine would be administered. The big drugmaker also said that it intended to use its distribution center in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin. This approach would enable Pfizer to deliver BNT162b2 to any vaccine administration site in the U.S. "within a day or two," according to the company.

Shipping BNT162b2 to more distribution hubs spread across the U.S. should speed up delivery to the points of use even more (again, assuming the vaccine wins an EUA). That's great news for millions of Americans who are anxiously awaiting a safe and effective vaccine. 

One big investing takeaway

There's one takeaway for investors when it comes to these early shipments of BNT162b2: Pfizer is the clear leader in the coronavirus vaccine race at this point. It's important to remember that Pfizer and BioNTech stand to receive at least $1.95 billion from the U.S. government to supply 100 million doses of BNT162b2. That money could begin to flow very soon.

The amount could also increase. The U.S. has an option to purchase up to 500 million additional doses of BNT162b2. Pfizer and BioNTech also have major supply agreements with other countries.

This doesn't necessarily mean that the big pharma stock will be the biggest COVID vaccine winner. It takes a lot more to move the needle for a giant like Pfizer than it does for the small biotechs that are developing coronavirus vaccines. However, it's nice to be in first place. And that's where Pfizer indisputably is right now.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.