The New Technologies Enabling COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

The New Technologies Enabling COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

As the supply truck snaked its method over Northern California’s interstates and two-lane highways, a workforce of analysts watched over almost each side of its journey in real-time. They might see the stops the motive force took, they knew the climate outdoors and, most significantly, they knew the situation of the valuable cargo onboard: hundreds of doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

In the again of the truck, containers filled with vials of Pfizer/BioNTech’s newly licensed vaccine have been loaded onto personalized trays, resembling small pizza containers, every carrying a minimal of 975 doses. The containers have been filled with sensors, monitoring units and dry ice, which enabled the workforce to look at because the temperatures of two of the trays—one destined for Napa, Calif.; one other to Sonora, Calif.—plunged beneath the accepted threshold of -112°F.

A name was made to the truck driver to cease, and hold the trays within the car. “They never left the truck,” Army General Gustave Perna, the commander overseeing logistics for the U.S. federal vaccine program, instructed reporters on Wednesday. “We returned them immediately back to Pfizer and we sent immediate shipments to replace those two trays.”

Shipping COVID-19 vaccine is a frightening problem, not solely due to the logistics concerned in distributing tens of millions of small glass vials to every nook of the nation, but additionally as a result of the doses should be saved frozen at far beneath regular freezer temperatures for the whole journey. To guarantee protected supply, the U.S. authorities, drug makers and supply firms have needed to work collectively to develop a community of monitoring units and detection programs.

Every field is provided with a GPS beacon, a temperature monitor and a barcode that’s scanned upon receipt. If the doses deviate from their goal vacation spot in every of the 41,689 U.S. zip codes, or if the vials get too scorching or chilly, officers on the firms and the federal government are instantly alerted to the issue. The data streams into the Vaccine Operations Center, identified internally because the VOC. The windowless, convention hall-sized, command hub in downtown Washington is the place uniformed navy members, Department of Health and Human Services officers and U.S. Marshals hold a watchful eye over logistics for the federal vaccine program, dubbed Operation Warp Speed (OWS).

On the operations ground, dozens of analysts work behind rows of pc displays. On the far wall in entrance of them, 4 giant flat screens glow with real-time details about the day’s deliveries. The workforce there watched the temperature drawback unfold in Northern California—and later noticed the identical factor occur with two different trays in Mobile, Ala. “Same anomaly,” Perna says. “We were able to stop and quarantine the vaccine.”

It stays unclear why it occurred, however all three shipments fell to -133.6°F. “We’re working with the CDC, FDA and Pfizer to determine if that anomaly is safe or not, but we’re taking no chances,” Perna says.

This was one of many first supply issues confronted by Perna and his OWS workforce, nevertheless it definitely gained’t be the final. And whereas the difficulty with the deliveries have been inconvenient, officers concerned with the vaccine effort have been uplifted by the actual fact the know-how put in place to detect glitches labored. By Wednesday, alternative trays arrived in Alabama and California.

Pfizer, the primary firm to ship vaccines within the U.S., is dealing with some particular challenges with deliveries. The GPS monitoring system and temperature-monitoring units within the lid of the containers for the Pfizer photographs—developed with the German biotech agency BioNTech—are obligatory as a result of they depend on a brand new mRNA know-how that requires the photographs to stay frozen till they’re thawed to be used.

The ultracold storage necessities stop the vaccine parts from degrading. Another vaccine, made by Moderna, which is anticipated to get FDA authorization this week, requires storage and delivery at -4°F—far much less chilly than the Pfizer shot requires, and at temperatures that may be achieved by most pharmacy freezers. Because of this, the first vaccine distributors, UPS and FedEx, have expanded refrigeration functionality, often called “freezer farms,” to make sure vaccines will be routinely shipped on long-distance journeys from one finish of the nation to the opposite.

After Pfizer containers are opened, they should be positioned in an ultracold freezer or be re-packed with contemporary dry ice each 5 days for as much as 4 weeks. Seeing a possibility, UPS elevated capability to provide dry ice, as much as 1,200 kilos per hour, enabling it to resupply hospitals, clinics and different factors of care. It additionally launched a three way partnership with Stirling Ultracold to construct and promote moveable ultracold freezers with temperatures that go as little as -112°F.

A UPS freezer farm in in Louisville, Ky.

A UPS freezer farm in in Louisville, Ky.


FedEx is utilizing a brand new monitoring program in collaboration with Microsoft, referred to as Surround, which makes use of historic information round FedEx’s routes, climate and mapping information and analytics capabilities to expedite supply. “To illustrate how this works practically, imagine if a pallet of vaccines were destined for transport from Michigan to California and the external data showed a high likelihood of delay because of weather,” writes Judson Althoff, an organization government. “In that scenario, an alert would be triggered to customer service agents and operations planners, who could then put the shipment on another flight. It’s the difference between the vaccine getting to California on time and ready to go or not.”

Dr. Moncef Slaoui, a co-leader on OWS with Perna, says he expects about 40 million doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccine distributed by the top of December. As extra vaccines change into accessible and the distribution chain turns into extra fine-tuned, the tempo of vaccinations may even improve, hopefully to the purpose the place 100 million Americans can be inoculated by the top of the primary quarter of 2021.

To hold observe of all of it, the federal government developed a brand new software program platform referred to as Tiberius. It allows states and federal businesses to see their orders and observe their vaccines. The program covers 50 states, eight territories, the Veterans Health Administration, the Bureau of Prisons, the Indian Health Service and the departments of Defense and State.

Tiberius permits each state well being division to “see all of their enrolled providers there and they can dive in and really go into great detail on making decisions on where they’re going to send the vaccine within their jurisdiction,” says Deacon Maddox, a retired Army colonel and now OWS chief of plans, operations and analytics.

Each Thursday, vaccine producers inform OWS how a lot vaccine is out there for the upcoming week. On Friday, Tiberius runs an algorithm that attracts on a variety of things, together with grownup inhabitants and vaccine uptake, and allocates the utmost variety of doses accessible to each state. On Saturday, each state finalizes their orders, which may go as much as no matter cap Tiberius has set. Deliveries arrive on Monday.

To monitor unintended effects in individuals who have been vaccinated, the CDC is launching a brand new smartphone-based texting system, dubbed V-Safe, that can permit those that have obtained their photographs to instantly report any uncommon well being results they expertise. It’s the primary system that can permit individuals to instantly report unintended effects of a publicly accessible vaccine; current programs depend on medical doctors and different well being care suppliers to observe and log hostile occasions.

Anyone who will get the vaccine and enrolls within the system will get each day texts the primary week after each their first and second doses, asking about any unintended effects they is likely to be experiencing and whether or not they interfered with their each day actions or prevented them from going to work. After the primary week, the reminders come as soon as per week for six weeks. The responses are logged and evaluated, and if they’re deemed severe, or if specialists on the CDC decide a sample within the kinds of signs reported, they set off an alert to the nationwide Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (a longtime vaccine facet impact monitoring system that medical doctors and hospitals usually report back to) after which adopted up on to find out if the facet impact was associated to the vaccine.

The first recipients of the vaccine doses can be well being care employees, together with individuals who work in hospitals, long-term care amenities, residence well being care, pharmacies, emergency medical providers in addition to in public well being, and older Americans residing in expert nursing or long-term care amenities. So—even with the gee-whiz know-how advances—the vaccine will not be anticipated to be extensively accessible to most Americans till springtime.

Write to W.J. Hennigan at


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