US Air Force Flew Half a Million Coronavirus Test Swabs From Italy to Tennessee

By Marcus Weisgerber

March 18, 2020

UPDATE 2:30 PM: This story has been updated to include comments from Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman and Air Force Brig. Gen. Dr. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon.

The U.S. Air Force quietly flew 500,000 swabs for COVID-19 testing kits from Italy to Memphis, Tennessee, on Monday, Defense One has learned.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman confirmed the shipment on board an Air National Guard aircraft. The plane carried “swabs” that are used in the COVID-19 testing process, he said during a Wednesday afternoon briefing at the Pentagon.

There’s multiple parts to testing,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Dr. Paul Friedrichs, the Joint Staff surgeon, said at the same briefing. “The first is the swabs that are used to collect the sample from the individual who’s being tested, then there’s a liquid … that you put the swab into. That’s what composed what we brought over from Italy.”

These types of swabs are made by companies in the U.S. and overseas, he said. 

This is a great example of how nations are working together to ensure that we’re meeting the global demand,” Friedrichs said.

Gen. Dave Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff, confirmed that military cargo planes were moving coronavirus testing kits, but did not give specific details during a Wednesday briefing at the Pentagon. The general acknowledged that "we've just made a pretty significant movement into Memphis."

The mission was flown by a C-17 cargo plane using the call “Reach 911,” which landed early Tuesday morning at Memphis International Airport, a major FedEx hub. Shipping the kits to Memphis allows them to be quickly transferred to commercial aircraft and distributed around the country, according to people familiar with the mission.

A photo posted to Instagram on Tuesday shows a C-17 filled with pallets loaded with the test kits, captioned by a user who said he was part of the air crew. The user who posted the picture has since deleted it, but Defense One has verified its authenticity. 

Goldfein acknowledged the Air Force is “moving test kits all in support of Homeland Security [and] Health and Human Services to make sure that we’re meeting the demands that they have.”

While Goldfein did give specific details of the flight, sources, social media posts and public flight tracking data gave a glimpse into the mission, which began early Monday afternoon at Aviano Air Base in Italy and ended just after 1 a.m. local time in Memphis.

Similar missions are expected in the coming days as the military ramps up its support for pandemic-response efforts.

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By Marcus Weisgerber // Marcus Weisgerber is the global business editor for Defense One, where he writes about the intersection of business and national security. He has been covering defense and national security issues for more than a decade, previously as Pentagon correspondent for Defense News and chief editor of Inside the Air Force. He has reported from Afghanistan, the Middle East, Europe, and Asia, and often travels with the defense secretary and other senior military officials.

March 18, 2020