(Reuters) -Cargo planes and trucks with the first U.S. shipments of coronavirus vaccine fanned out from FedEx and UPS hubs in Tennessee and Kentucky on Sunday en route to distribution points around the country, launching an immunization project of unprecedented scope and complexity.
The inoculations, seen as pivotal to ultimately halting a surging pandemic that is claiming more than 2,400 U.S. lives a day, could begin as early as Monday.
The first are likely to be at vaccination sites closest to any of the 145 initial shipment destinations nationwide, or those nearest the FedEx Corp or United Parcel Service cargo centers that are relaying deliveries from the factory.
Governor Andy Beshear of Kentucky suggested the very first injections of the vaccine will be given in his state, home to the UPS Worldport sorting facility in Louisville - one of two distribution command centers. The other is the FedEx air cargo hub in Memphis, Tennessee.
“We now believe that the first individuals will be vaccinated here in the commonwealth tomorrow morning. We are less than 24 hours away from the beginning of the end of this virus,” Beshear wrote on Twitter on Sunday.
The coronavirus vaccine, developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, gained emergency-use approval from federal regulators late on Friday, clearing the way for distribution to begin a mere 11 months after the United States documented its first COVID-19 infections.
The monumental undertaking began early on Sunday with trucks carrying dry ice-cooled packages of vaccine - which must be kept at sub-Arctic temperatures - from Pfizer’s facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan, to UPS and FedEx planes waiting at air fields in Lansing and Grand Rapids.
TWO HUBS, MANY SPOKES
From there, the delivery jets whisked the shipments to UPS and FedEx’s respective cargo hubs in Louisville and Memphis, for distribution on planes and trucks to the first 145 of 636 vaccine-staging areas across the country. A second and third waves of vaccine shipments were due to go out to the remaining sites on Tuesday and Wednesday.
“Today, we’re not hauling freight, we’re delivering hope,” said Andrew Boyle, co-president of Boyle Transportation, which was hired by UPS to help ferry vaccine from the factory to a waiting plane in Lansing.
The precious cargo was escorted to airports by body-armor-clad security officers.
Boyle employee Bonnie Brewer, 56, said decades of experience hauling chemotherapies and other life-saving drugs prepared her for the historic run.
“It feels amazing,” Brewer told Reuters after the cargo was safely handed off.
Healthcare workers and elderly residents of long-term care homes will be first in line to get the inoculations of a two-dose regimen given about three weeks apart.
Public health officials have warned Americans not to become complacent about wearing masks and avoiding crowds in the meantime.
More than 100 million people, or about 30% of the U.S. population, could be immunized by the end of March, U.S. Operation Warp Speed chief adviser Dr Moncef Slaoui said in an interview with Fox News Sunday.
That would still leave the country far short of herd immunity that would halt virus transmission, so masks and social distancing will be needed for months to control the rampaging outbreak.
Health officials will also have to overcome widespread hesitancy about the new vaccines, with many Americans concerned the record speed at which they were developed may have compromised safety.
“It is however critical that most of the American people decide and accept to take the vaccine,” Slaoui said. “We are very concerned by the hesitancy that we see.”
The massive logistical effort is further complicated by the need to transport and store the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine 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 were loaded onto trucks at the Pfizer factory. The long-awaited moment comes as the U.S. death toll was approaching 300,000 and infections and hospitalizations set daily records. Some models project that deaths could reach 500,000 before vaccines become widely available in the spring and summer. (Graphic: tmsnrt.rs/34pvUyi)
Slaoui said the United States hopes to have about 40 million vaccine doses - enough for 20 million people - distributed by the end of December. That would include vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna Inc. An outside FDA advisory panel is scheduled to consider the Moderna vaccine on Thursday, with emergency use expected to be granted shortly after.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was found to be 95% effective in preventing illness in a large clinical trial. It is not yet known if it prevents infection or transmission of the coronavirus.
UPS and FedEx package delivery drivers are giving the vaccine priority over holiday gifts and other parcels, as health officials plead with the public to avoid holiday gatherings following a post-Thanksgiving spike in hospitalizations and deaths.
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.
Reporting by Lisa Baertlein in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Susan Cornwell and Richard Cowan in Washington and Peter Szekely in New York; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Joseph White, Lisa Shumaker and Bill Berkrot
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