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Pfizer vaccine being packaged for distribution, officials say

Wesley Wheeler, president of Global Healthcare at UPS, holds up an example of one of UPS' tracking system for shipping vaccines Thursday. Pool Photo by Andrew Harnik/UPI
1 of 2 | Wesley Wheeler, president of Global Healthcare at UPS, holds up an example of one of UPS' tracking system for shipping vaccines Thursday. Pool Photo by Andrew Harnik/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 12 (UPI) -- Federal officials said the process of distributing the first COVID-19 vaccine began Saturday.

The Food & Drug Administration issued emergency use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine Friday, and on Saturday officials said vaccines were being packaged to be sent to 636 locations this week.

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"As I speak today, right now, vaccines are being packaged," Gen. Gustave Perna, co-leader of Operation Warp Speed in charge of logistics, said. "Tomorrow morning, vaccines will start rolling from manufacturing to distribution hubs. By Monday, vaccines will be received."

According to Perna, 145 sites will receive vaccine doses Monday, 425 on Tuesday and 66 on Wednesday.

Perna said the federal government is only delivering half the doses available because Pfizer's vaccine requires two doses and he wants to ensure the second dose is available for those who need it.

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"The reason why we're holding on to the second dose, as well as some reserve, is that we don't have absolute confidence in the cadence -- not because Pfizer or Moderna or the supporting manufacturers and fill-finishes aren't diligent in their process," Perna said. "But it is such a delicate process, we want to ensure perfection in the vaccine because we don't want anything going into an arm that would be a problem."

Federal Express and United Parcel Service executives said earlier this week that the vaccines will be given priority over all other shipments even as the services experience their busiest holiday shipping season on record.

The shipping services are also planning on offering location tracking, and are collaborating to divide up the work of shipping the vaccine to ensure it's done quickly and safely.

"Just to point out how profound this is, you have two fierce rivals ... in FedEx and UPS who are literally teaming up to get this delivered," FedEx Express Executive Vice President Richard Smith said a Senate transportation subcommittee meeting Thursday.

Smith and Wes Wheeler, president of UPS Global Healthcare, said UPS -- which will deliver materials for the vaccine kits such as diluent, syringes and protective gear for medical workers -- said they are working with the Federal Aviation Administration to alert them to planes carrying the vaccine so they receive priority takeoff and landing clearance.

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Wheeler said vaccine and dry ice shipments will have special labels and tracking technology and will also be shipped with devices that monitor temperature, location and motion.

Speaking at the same hearing, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine, who is president of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officers, cautioned 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.

According to Levine, there was 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.

Levine said the $340 million the Trump administration has allocated to states and territories to help with distribution is "simply not enough."

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