First Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine shipments to be delivered to US distribution sites starting Monday

Saturday was D-Day for COVID-19 vaccine, when distribution of small vials that hold the hope of ending the coronavirus pandemic began to be packed for delivery at a manufacturing facility in Michigan.

"D-Day was a pivotal turning point in World War II. It was the beginning of the end," Gen. Gustave Perna, co-leader of Operation Warp Speed in charge of logistics, said at a news conference Saturday. "And that's where we are today."

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, authorized by the Food and Drug Administration Friday night for emergency use, will be delivered to 145 hospitals, clinics and public health systems in all 50 states on Monday morning.

It was being packaged Saturday at the Pfizer manufacturing site in Portage, Michigan just outside of Kalamazoo. On Sunday the packages will begin the journey to distribution hubs to be shipped by UPS and FedEx, Perna said.

"Right now, boxes are being packed and loaded with vaccine with an emphasis on quality control," he said.

That involves Pfizer personnel taking five-dose glass vials of vaccine out of subzero freezers and packing them into the company's specially designed shipping container, Wes Wheeler, president of Global Healthcare at UPS, told USA TODAY.

Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine is being shipped in specially designed, insulated containers that hold between 195 and 975 five-dose vials and are about the size of a carry-on suitcase. The vials are stored in flat, pizza box-sized compartments, each of which holds 195 vials. A fully-loaded thermal container, which is reusable, contains five of these and weighs about 70 pounds.

Each vaccine shipping box weighs about 80 pounds and holds up to 4,875 doses of vaccine. There are five doses per vial. The vials are packed in flat boxes about the size of a small pizza box, each of which holds 195 vials. As many as five of these are stacked together in a reusable, insulated cardboard box that is topped with 50 pounds of dry ice.

Kits containing syringes, alcohol wipes, vaccination reminder cards for the necessary second dose and other items have already been shipped, Perna said.

A total of 636 locations will receive vaccine next week, 145 on Monday, 425 on Tuesday and the final 66 on Wednesday.

The first delivery locations were chosen because they all have ultracold freezer capacity, Perna said. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine must be stored at minus 94 degrees, which requires special freezers most commonly found at large medical centers.

By federal regulations, the vaccine could not be shipped to medical providers who will give immunizations until it was authorized by the FDA, he said.

There had been earlier statements that vaccine would be prepositioned at sites around the country to make it easier to get out as quickly as possible. However, Perna said in the end that did not happen.

"We did not want to presume EUA," Perna said. "Our timing was dependent on EUA approval. Under no circumstances did we want to get ahead of the great FDA and their decision making."

Both UPS and FedEx will be ready at the Pfizer facility in Portage.

In the case of UPS, on Sunday all the vaccine going into its shipping system will be flown on a dedicated plane from Michigan to its main hub in Louisville, Kentucky. After Sunday the vaccine cartons will go by truck to Louisville.

Each carton will have a GPS tracker allowing it to be located in real-time anywhere in the world, as well as a Bluetooth tracker that can locate it within 10 feet inside a UPS facility, said Wheeler.

The cartons will go out on usual UPS trucks and flights, but will always be the priority shipments in the system.

"Our pilots will know if they're carrying a vaccine, our drivers will know," Wheeler said.

Operation Warp Speed co-leaders Dr. Moncef Slaoui and Gen. Gustave Perna visit a UPS Freezer Farm in Louisville, Kentucky. The visit was among several industry visits solidifying COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
Operation Warp Speed co-leaders Dr. Moncef Slaoui and Gen. Gustave Perna visit a UPS Freezer Farm in Louisville, Kentucky. The visit was among several industry visits solidifying COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

When they arrive at a delivery site, the drivers must be shown a U.S.-government issued identification card and the name of the person taking receipt of the vaccine will be uploaded into the system.

"So we'll have a firm point of delivery declaration and we'll feed that information back to Operation Warp Speed," Wheeler said.

While the vaccine deliveries are of great national importance, they will make up only a "tiny, tiny" percentage of UPS's overall package volume, so Wheeler said he didn't anticipate it affect holiday deliveries.

After the initial doses go out, beginning the week of Dec. 21, Perna said Operation Warp Speed will begin shipping vaccine on a weekly basis.

But getting it right the first week is crucial.

"We'll be working hard the next couple of days to ensure these first shipments go very well, he said. "It is the foundation for all future deliveries."

The number of doses delivered will grow each week, as more vaccine is manufactured and becomes available. Perna said he anticipated 40 million doses would go out by the end of the month.

"We want a consistent flow of available approved vaccine to be distributed to the American people as soon as it's available," he said.

As early as three weeks from now, he said vaccine will be going to all providers states choose to direct it to.

While Perna said he is proud of the work that had been done, he acknowledged it is only the beginning. Months of effort still ahead to get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and those that come after it out to all Americans who want it.

"We are not taking a victory lap," he said, adding the process is complex and will certainly involve stumbles along the way. "We will figure it out, collectively. I am very confident."

Contact Elizabeth Weise at

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID vaccine distribution: First Pfizer shipments to arrive Monday