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Historic US COVID vaccine campaign launches with convoy of trucks

The first shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine left a factory in Michigan early on Sunday on a convoy of semi trucks, kicking off a historic effort to stop a surging pandemic that is claiming more than 2,400 lives a day in the United States.

Mask-wearing workers at a Pfizer factory in Michigan began packing the first shipments of its vaccine in dry ice shortly after 6:30 a.m. ET (1130 GMT) on Sunday.

Three trucks carrying pallets of boxed, refrigerated vaccines rolled away from the Kalamazoo facility at 8:29 a.m., escorted by body armor-clad security officers in a pickup truck and a SUV.

The United States expects to immunize 100 million people, or about 30% of its population, by the end of March, US Operation Warp Speed chief adviser Dr. Moncef Slaoui said in an interview with Fox News Sunday.

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.

The massive logistical effort is complicated by the need to transport and store the vaccine developed with German partner BioNTech SE at minus 70 Celsius (minus 94 Fahrenheit), requiring enormous quantities of dry ice or specialized ultra-cold freezers.

Workers clapped and whistled as the first boxes headed to the trucks. The long-awaited moment comes as the US death toll was approaching 300,000 and infections and hospitalizations set daily records. It will take months before most US residents can get a COVID-19 vaccine. 

The federal government plans to release the nation’s first 2.9 million doses to 64 states, US territories and major cities, as well as five federal agencies. Although the federal government is coordinating distribution efforts, states have the final say 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 as millions wait for the vaccine and a return to life free from the fear of the deadly illness.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in a large clinical trial was 95% effective in preventing illness. It is not yet known if it prevents infection or transmission of COVID-19 by those who are vaccinated.

US regulators late on Friday authorized emergency use of the vaccine, following similar moves by the UK and Canada, less than a year after the first cases were reported in the United States.

Delivery firms give vaccine top priority

"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. 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.

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.

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.

Healthcare workers and elderly residents of long-term care homes are first in line to receive the inoculations of a two-dose regimen given about three weeks apart. — Reuters