An assembly line of workers began in the early morning hours pulling doses out of a freezer, boxing the vaccine and loading the units onto pallets so they could be placed on trucks at the Pfizer plant near Kalamazoo, Michigan. Dry ice, shipping labels and packing tape were on hand as the workers – donning masks, face shields and gloves – put together the packages inside the warehouse.
One forklift driver transported the boxes to a loading area where a second forklift driver was transferring the pallets from inside the facility onto a semitruck.
Shipments of the Pfizer vaccine will set in motion the biggest vaccination effort in American history at a critical juncture of the pandemic that has killed 1.6 million and sickened 71 million worldwide.
2.9 million doses will be distributed to 64 jurisdictions in all 50 states and five U.S. territories. Twenty-one days later, another 2.9 million doses will arrive at those same locations so those who received the first shot can get their second and final dose.
With help from FedEx and UPS, the pharmaceutical company said it believes it can deliver the entire first batch of vaccines within two days. Operation Warp speed officials said the vaccines will be delivered by Monday.
About 500,000 doses will be held on reserve at the Pfizer plant in Portage, Michigan, in case of an emergency.
The vaccine is heading to hospitals and other sites that can store it at extremely low temperatures – about 94 degrees below zero. Pfizer is using containers with dry ice and GPS-enabled sensors to ensure each shipment stays colder than the weather in Antarctica.
Doses should be delivered to all vaccination sites identified by states, such as local pharmacies, within three weeks, federal officials said.
The Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of the vaccine Friday, saying it is highly protective and presents no major safety issues. While U.S. regulators worked for months to emphasize the rigor and independence of their review, they faced political pressure until the final stages.
Another vaccine by Moderna will be reviewed by an expert panel this week and soon afterward could be allowed for public use.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.