DETROIT/LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK — Distribution of Moderna Inc.’s COVID-19 vaccine to more than 3,700 locations in the United States has begun, vastly widening the rollout started last week by Pfizer Inc., U.S Army General Gustave Perna said on Saturday.
Moderna has already moved vaccines from its manufacturing plants to warehouses operated by distributor McKesson Corp where they are being packed into containers and loaded on to trucks on Saturday, Perna said during a news conference. Trucks will set out on Sunday and shipments will start reaching healthcare providers as soon as Monday, he said.
The Food and Drug Administration on Friday approved an emergency use authorization for Moderna’s vaccine, the second COVID-19 vaccine to be approved. The jab developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech SE was approved Dec. 11.
Workers in pharmaceutical services provider Catalent Inc’s facility in Bloomington, Indiana, are filling and packaging vials with Moderna vaccine and handing them to McKesson, which will ship doses from facilities including Louisville, Kentucky and Memphis, Tennessee. Those locations are close to air hubs for United Parcel Service Inc and FedEx Corp.
The start of delivery for the Moderna vaccine will significantly widen availability of COVID-19 vaccines as U.S. deaths related to the respiratory virus set records.
Perna apologized to U.S. governors for confusion on the vaccine’s availability after the U.S. government this week reduced allocation figures it had given to states to help them plan this coming week’s rollout.
States including Oregon and Washington said this week their allocation had dropped by as much as 40%.
Perna said he made an error estimating the number of doses that would actually be cleared by regulators for shipment, which was fewer than the number of doses that had been produced.
He said there are no problems with Pfizer’s or Moderna’s manufacturing processes. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said it still expects to deliver 7.9 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines nationally this week.
“Please accept my personal apology if this was disruptive in your decision making, and in your conversations with the people of your great state,” said Perna, appealing to state governors.
Pfizer organized its own distribution system but the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed, led by an Army general, is in charge for Moderna. The Moderna delivery system will have some of the same players as Pfizer’s but will differ in key ways.
Transportation companies UPS and FedEx are giving priority to vaccines on planes and trucks that are moving holiday gifts and other cargo. Their drivers will handle the bulk of the last-mile Moderna vaccine deliveries. They are going directly to vaccination sites, unlike Pfizer’s which was sent to large hubs and redistributed.
The vaccine shipments are coming at a time when there is more demand for package delivery than existing networks can handle.
“We added a lot of aircraft, a lot of temporary workers. (Vaccines) are a very small fraction of total volumes,” said Wes Wheeler, a UPS executive in charge of vaccine shipments.
Moderna’s vaccine is available in quantities as small as 100 doses and can be stored for 30 days in standard-temperature refrigerators, while the inoculations from Pfizer come in boxes of 975 doses, must be shipped and stored at -70 Celsius (-94 F), and can be held for only 5 days at standard refrigerator temperatures.
Initial doses were given to health professionals. Programs by pharmacies Walgreens and CVS to distribute the Pfizer vaccine to long-term care facilities are expected to start on Monday, said Gareth Rhodes, a member of Cuomo’s COVID-19 task force. And a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel on Sunday will consider what groups should get vaccinated next.
Doses of vaccine must travel with security guards, including U.S. Marshals, and will be stored in locked refrigerators.
Perna said the United States is on track to have enough doses available of Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines by the end of the year to inoculate 20 million people, but deliveries of those doses may continue into first week of January.
Both vaccines were about 95% effective at preventing illness in clinical trials that found no serious safety issues.
Separately, U.S. officials said Pfizer is preparing to distribute 2 million additional doses of its vaccine to locations around the country next week, with preparations for shipping beginning over the weekend.
(Reporting by Joe White and Lisa Baertlein; Editing by Peter Henderson, Nick Zieminski and Daniel Wallis)
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