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Test shipments for COVID-19 vaccines exposed problems, official tells Senate

By
Don Jacobson
Wesley Wheeler, president of Global Healthcare at United Parcel Service, displays a sample COVID-19 vaccine vial during a Senate hearing Thursday. Photo by Samuel Corum/UPI/Pool
Wesley Wheeler, president of Global Healthcare at United Parcel Service, displays a sample COVID-19 vaccine vial during a Senate hearing Thursday. Photo by Samuel Corum/UPI/Pool | License Photo

Dec. 10 (UPI) -- Test runs for quickly distributing millions of doses of a new COVID-19 vaccine exposed some problems and showed "varying levels of success," a state health official warned Senate lawmakers Thursday.

Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, who is president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers, told a Senate subcommittee hearing that dry runs conducted to test vaccine shipment logistics revealed "at least one significant issue" with on-time performance in a quarter of states where the tests were run.

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"In recent mock shipments of vaccine to train and test the transportation/logistics planning that has been done by [Operation Warp Speed], there have been varying levels of success," Levine said in prepared remarks.

Some states, she said, saw a two-day gap between the arrival of the mock vaccine and ancillary supplies required to administer the doses, such as syringes and protective gear.

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If not addressed, she said, those types of problems will "delay the vaccination of key prioritized populations."

The Trump administration has so far allocated just $340 million to states and territories to help with distribution. The billions required to vaccinate most Americans has been held up in congressional deadlock over COVID-19 funding.

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"The $340 million allocated for states, territories and big cities to date is simply not enough," Levine, who testified remotely, added. "If you break it down, that's about $1 per American to mount an immunization enterprise that is unparalleled in scale and complication."

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The Association of State and Territorial Health Officers is requesting that Congress provide $8.4 billion in emergency funding for the vaccination campaign, which includes money for staffers, infrastructure and cold supply chain management.

The Senate committee also heard, in person, from United Parcel Service President of Global Healthcare Wesley Wheeler and FedEx Executive Vice President Richard Smith.

Wheeler, who said UPS Healthcare was a logistics partner in Pfizer's vaccine clinical trials, voiced confidence that the shipping company is up to the task to deliver vaccines.

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During a recent visit by Operation Warp Speed leaders to UPS health facilities in Kentucky, he said, officials examined "ultra-low temperature shipments" and "dry ice replenishment."

"I believe they left feeling confident with our degree of readiness," he said.

Smith said because FedEx has been working with drugmakers for years, it's familiar with what will be needed.

"We know them well, we know their business well, we work well together," he said. "And we plan for these things every year."

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No vaccine has yet been approved for use against COVID-19 in the United States, but that is expected to change Thursday afternoon when regulators vote on the vaccine developed jointly by Pfizer and BioNTech. Approval may also be given for a vaccine from Moderna next week.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine has already been approved for use in Britain and Canada, and is awaiting similar approval in Israel. Britain began inoculating people on Tuesday.

Both vaccines have proven in late-stage clinical trials to be about 95% effective in blocking the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the companies say.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said last month the goal is to have 40 million doses distributed by the end of December.

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