Pfizer Sets Up Its ‘Biggest Ever’ Vaccination Distribution Campaign

In Kalamazoo, Mich., a stretch of land the size of a football field has been turned into a staging ground outfitted with 350 large freezers, ready to take delivery of millions of doses of Covid-19 vaccine before they can be shipped around the world.

The facility is a hub in the sprawling supply chain Pfizer Inc. has built to handle the delivery of a vaccine widely awaited as a possible relief from the coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. pharmaceutical giant says it wants to deliver up to 100 million doses this year and another 1.3 billion in 2021.

Like other drugmakers testing potential vaccines, Pfizer is urgently laying the groundwork with its logistics partners so it can move quickly if its vaccine gets the go-ahead from the Food and Drug Administration and other regulators around the world. 

“It’s the biggest-ever vaccination campaign,” said Tanya Alcorn, Pfizer’s supply-chain vice president. “If we get the FDA approval, we will be able to ship the vaccines very shortly after.”

The New York-based drugmaker is working with Germany’s BioNTech SE on one of several experimental Covid-19 vaccines in late-stage testing. Pfizer says it may know whether its vaccine works by the end of October and that it could be ready to apply for emergency-use authorization of its Covid-19 vaccine by late November.

The company’s effort to deliver relief to pandemic-weary populations will revolve around refrigerated storage sites at two of the company’s final assembly centers—the Kalamazoo facility and another in Puurs, Belgium—and rely on dozens of cargo-jet flights and hundreds of truck trips every day. Distribution centers in Pleasant Prairie, Wis., and in Karlsruhe, Germany, have been outfitted for extra storage capacity.

Pfizer so far has spent about $2 billion on developing the vaccine and setting up the distribution network.

The U.S. government placed an initial order for 100 million doses, with the option to purchase 500 million additional doses. The EU ordered 200 million doses with an option for another 100 million. Japan ordered 120 million doses and the U.K. 30 million. Countries in South America and in the Asia-Pacific region also have placed significant orders.

In a typical vaccination campaign, pharmaceutical companies would wait until their product is approved before buying raw materials, establishing manufacturing lines and setting up supply chains to ship a vaccine.

Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla said that the company began setting the groundwork for its supply chain in March, when it kicked off its vaccine development.

“Ensuring over a billion people globally have access to our potential vaccine is as critical as developing the vaccine itself,” he said.

Pfizer says it is preparing for distribution in case the vaccine wins authorization, with hundreds of thousands of doses already in the company’s warehouses in the U.S. and Europe.

To keep the vaccines safe in transit and to move them fast, Pfizer designed a new reusable container that can keep the vaccine at ultracold temperatures for up to 10 days and hold between 1,000 and 5,000 doses. The suitcase-sized boxes, which are packed with dry ice and tracked by GPS, will enable Pfizer to avoid the larger, temperature-controlling containers used in transportation, giving it more flexibility to ship the vaccines faster since planes and trucks won’t have to wait for the standard refrigerated metal boxes.

Pfizer expects to load those boxes on a combined 24 trucks a day from Kalamazoo and Puurs that will move roughly 7.6 million doses daily to airports.

The company plans to take cargo space on an average of 20 flights a day on planes operated by FedEx Corp. , United Parcel Service Inc. and DHL International GmbH to fly the vaccines as close as possible to vaccination centers, ranging from big medical facilities to far-flung hospitals. The air carriers are also in line to handle the next leg of the vaccine’s journey, trucking the doses to sites close to where they will be administered.

Total delivery time, from distribution center to point of use, is expected to be an average of three days, the company said.

Cargo airlines are scrambling to arrange scores of extra flights to move the vaccines. They could hit distribution channels at the height of the peak season for shipping goods ahead of the year-end holidays, squeezing expedited shipping capacity.

Unlike traditional vaccine rollouts, Pfizer plans to bypass distribution wholesalers, including McKesson Corp. , which has been tapped by the U.S. government to distribute Covid-19 vaccines through the federal Operation Warp Speed program.

“For the most part, we are not going to be building inventory,” Ms. Alcorn said. Going through wholesalers, she said, “adds time that we don’t have, and adds a touch point to a sensitive frozen product, taking it off and on trucks.”

Julie Swann, a North Carolina State University professor of industrial and systems engineering, and a health-care supply-chain expert who advised the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the H1N1 virus response, said the biggest complications in distribution likely would come closer to the final point of delivery rather than the first stages of shipping.

“Transportation from the manufacturer into a state is only the first step of what needs to be done,” she said. “The real challenges that concern me have to do with the ultralow cold storage. That is where we are in a space that is completely new for our systems in the U.S. for large-scale and wide geographic distribution.”

Shipments may have to be unpacked and moved in smaller lots, for instance, beyond the initial delivery point, increasing the chance that temperature controls could break down, Dr. Swann said.

“As logistics become more complicated around the secondary distribution, that’s going to take a little bit longer,” said Dr. Swann.

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