COVID-19 vaccines are on the way
November 18, 2020
Waiting for a vaccine has been a white-knuckle experience as the COVID-19 virus continues to attack thousands in Wisconsin and millions across the country and around the world. For weeks, health organizations have warned that Wisconsin is about to tip into dangerous territory as state hospitals get near or reach capacity.
Could that be about to change?
Two recent announcements by two different drug companies, Pfizer and Moderna, hailed upcoming vaccines that could conceivably be ready soon if approved by the Food and Drug Administration. In early November, Pfizer announced that its breakthrough vaccine was more than 90 percent effective. Last Wednesday, Moderna announced its own COVID-19 vaccine was 94.5 percent effective. Both companies will seek emergency use permission from the FDA.
The vaccines both require two shots given several weeks apart, according to the Associated Press. It is possible each vaccine will have 20 million does ready to go by the end of 2020.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar is hopeful that there will be enough vaccine available by the end of January 2021 to inoculate healthcare workers and adults over age 65, two groups that are at high risk for contracting the virus. However, that has yet to be decided.
Moderna’s president, Dr. Stephen Hoge, welcomed the milestone. “That should give us all hope that actually a vaccine is going to be able to stop this pandemic,” he told the AP.
If approved for emergency use, the vaccines will roll out in the biggest inoculation effort in US history. But even if approved, problems will confront the effort. Pfizer’s vaccine requires ultra-cold storage temperatures of minus 94 degrees and Moderna’s starts off frozen but may be thawed and kept refrigerated for up to 30 days.
Wisconsin has a big role to play in vaccine distribution. Kent Wainscott of WISN 12, an ABC affiliate, reported that while most of Pfizer’s vaccine will come through the company’s Kalamazoo site, its Pleasant Prairie site will also process vaccines.
Pfizer has already begun to modify one of its two Pleasant Prairie facilities to install required equipment, such as deep freezers to meet the minus 94 requirements. The company will hire about 150 additional employees. Pfizer told WISN 12 News that during December it expects the Pleasant Prairie site to process 1 to 2 million doses of the vaccine per week. The expectations are about 5 million doses from the site by spring.
If approved by the FDA for distribution, the New York Times reports that limited doses of the Pfizer vaccine will most likely be shipped to large hospitals and pharmacies for health care workers and other at-risk groups. Five doses of the vaccine will be put into each vial. Then 195 vials will be packed into trays. Five trays will then be placed into specially designed cooler boxes. Pfizer plans to have approximately 100,000 coolers ready by the end of November and more than double that number by March.
The coolers are reusable and will be filled with dry ice. The 1,000 to 5,000 doses in each cooler will be tracked with GPS sensors. Pfizer staff will be able to track and monitor the temperature of each cooler during transport to hospitals. There the vaccine trays may be removed and stored in conventional freezers for up to 5 days. The vaccine vials can be kept in the dry-ice coolers for up to 15 days, as long as the coolers aren’t opened more than twice in a day and are replenished with dry ice.
Both UPS and FedEx plan to play a major role in distributing vaccines.
Logistics are surmountable problems. The hard part could be getting people to get inoculated.
“The challenge, of course, that’s out there is: Are people going to get vaccinated?” Tanya Alcorn, a Pfizer supply-change executive, told the New York Times. “It would be a shame that we did all this work, and then we don’t have the public trusting that there’s a safe vaccine.”