Mask wearing workers at a Pfizer factory in Michigan began packing the first shipments of its Covid-19 vaccine in dry ice shortly after 6:30am ET (1130 GMT) on Sunday. Three trucks carrying pallets of boxed, refrigerated vaccines rolled away from the central Michigan facility at 8:29am, escorted by body armor-clad security officers in a pickup truck and a SUV.
The shipments of the Pfizer vaccine will set in motion the biggest vaccination effort in American history at a critical juncture of the pandemic that has killed 1.6 million and infected 71 million worldwide.
In a novel process that will need to become daily routine, workers removed pizza-boxed sized cartons containing vaccine vials from a freezer. They placed them in large, blue coolers, before these were boxed and labeled, as shown on a network television video feed.
Workers clapped and whistled as the first boxes headed to the trucks.
The long-awaited moment comes as the death toll was approaching 300,000 and infections and hospitalizations set daily records in the United States.
Federal officials say the first shipments of Pfizer’s vaccine will be staggered, arriving in 145 distribution centers Monday, with an additional 425 sites getting shipments Tuesday, and the remaining 66 on Wednesday. The vaccine, co-developed by German partner BioNTech, is being doled out based on each state’s adult population.
Although the federal government is coordinating distribution efforts, states have the final decision over who gets the first shots. The federal government is sending the first shipments to more than 600 locations.
Companies in a range of industries are lobbying state and federal officials to give priority to their workers in the line of millions waiting for the vaccine and a return to life free from the fear of the deadly illness.
US regulators late on Friday authorized the vaccine from Pfizer and partner BioNTech for use.
“We have spent months strategizing with Operation Warp Speed officials and our healthcare customers on efficient vaccine logistics, and the time has arrived to put the plan into action,” Wes Wheeler, president of UPS Healthcare, said on Saturday.
Pfizer’s dry-ice cooled packages can hold as many as 4,875 doses, and the first leg of their journey will be from Kalamazoo to planes positioned nearby. The aircraft will shuttle vaccine packages to United Parcel Service or FedEx air cargo hubs in Louisville, Kentucky, and Memphis, Tennessee, respectively.
From there, they will be trucked or flown to facilities close to the 145 US sites earmarked to receive the first doses.
Pennsylvania health care giant UPMC has chosen staff who are critical to operating its facilities as among those getting the first round of vaccinations, said Dr. Graham Snyder, who led the center’s vaccine task force.
“It’s very exciting. I will be thrilled, that moment when we administer our first dose,” Snyder said Saturday. “That will clearly be a watershed moment for us.”
The 40-hospital Oschner Health System in Louisiana and Mississippi expects to receive more than 9,000 doses in the coming days, said Dr. Sandra Kemmerly, medical director of hospital quality.
Employees approved for the first round are getting texts and emails directing them to schedule their initial injection, she said.
“I would say there’s enthusiasm,” Kemmerly said Saturday. “There’s that thought that maybe they don’t have to be so afraid to come to work if they can be vaccinated and be immune.”
The rollout will ensure there is enough vaccine to give people the two doses needed for full protection against Covid-19. That means the government is holding back 3 million doses to give those vaccinated in the first round a second shot a few weeks later.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of the vaccine Friday, saying it is highly protective and presents no major safety issues. While U.S. regulators worked for months to emphasize the rigor and independence of their review, they faced political pressure until the final stages.
Concerns that a shot was rushed out could undermine vaccination efforts in a country with deeply ingrained skepticism about vaccines. The head of the FDA said the agency’s decision was based on science, not politics, despite a White House threat to fire him if the vaccine wasn’t approved before Saturday.
While the vaccine was determined to be safe, regulators in the U.K. are investigating several severe allergic reactions. The FDA’s instructions tell providers not give it to those with a known history of severe allergic reactions to any of its ingredients.
Another vaccine by Moderna will be reviewed by an expert panel next week and soon afterward could be allowed for public use.
Delivery firms give vaccine top priority
Familiar UPS and FedEx package delivery drivers are giving the vaccine top priority over holiday gifts and other parcels. They will deliver many of the “suitcases” into the hands of healthcare providers on Monday. The shipments are the first of three expected this week.
Healthcare workers and elderly residents of long-term care homes are first in line to receive the inoculations.
Pfizer’s inoculations have the most restrictive requirements for shipping and storage temperature, minus 70 Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit).
Both companies have expertise handling fragile medical products and are leaving little room for error. They are providing temperature and location tracking to backup devices embedded in the Pfizer boxes, and tracking each shipment throughout its journey.
Plans to immunize 100 million by end of Q1 2021
Meanwhile, the US expects to have immunized 100 million people with the coronavirus vaccine by the end of the first quarter of 2021, the chief US adviser for efforts on Covid-19 vaccines said on Sunday.
“We would have immunized 100 million people by the first quarter of 2021,” Operation Warp Speed chief adviser Dr Moncef Slaoui said in an interview with Fox News Sunday.
He said the United States hopes to have about 40 million doses of vaccine distributed by the end of December, and another 50 million to 80 million distributed in January, and the same number in February.