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Distribution Begins For 1st Coronavirus Vaccine. What's Next?


It's an historic moment in the pandemic. Late last night, the Food and Drug Administration officially authorized the first coronavirus vaccine for use in the U.S. And today...


GUS PERNA: Distribution has begun. Right now, boxes are being packed and loaded with vaccine with emphasis on quality control.

MARTIN: That is Army General Gus Perna with Operation Warp Speed speaking at a press conference this morning. This afternoon, another hurdle cleared - an advisory panel with the CDC recommended the vaccine for use. NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin is here to talk us through what exactly happens next.

Selena, welcome. Thank you so much for talking with us.

SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi, Michel - good to be here.

MARTIN: So boxes are being packed with vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccines. What's the next step?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, the federal government has contracted with FedEx and UPS, and the vials are going from Pfizer's manufacturing facilities to central distribution centers. I've been told the first batch will start moving around noon tomorrow. And General Perna says all states will receive shipments on Monday. Initially, we're talking about small quantities - about 6.4 million doses in the first batch. And each state knows exactly how many doses they're getting in these first few weeks based on the state's population.

MARTIN: And I understand that this particular vaccine is really complicated to handle. Is that right? Would you just tell us more about that?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Right. This vaccine needs to be kept at ultra-cold temperatures. That's colder than winter in Antarctica - minus 70 degrees Celsius. You need special freezers for that. And Pfizer made these special shipping containers that look kind of like a pizza box that can be kept cold with dry ice for a couple of weeks. But you also need to thaw and dilute the vaccine before administering it. You also have to give a second dose three weeks later. It is a lot. It is very, very complicated.

MARTIN: Well, today, a CDC advisory group voted to recommend the Pfizer vaccine. And what was the significance of that?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, this, along with the FDA authorization, really kicks off this whole process so the vaccine can start to be used and administered in the U.S. It's an important committee. Some states need this recommendation to move forward with their plans. And shortly, the CDC will make the committee's recommendation official guidance that the Pfizer vaccine is being recommended for use.

CDC is also expected to put out more detailed guidance in the next few days that should clarify questions about who might be at risk for allergic reactions and whether pregnant or lactating women should be recommended to receive the vaccine. So public health officials and providers are eager to get guidance on those detailed questions.

MARTIN: And I understand that you've been calling state health officials around the country today. What are you hearing?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, they're working like crazy. They're under a lot of pressure. This is what Kris Ehresmann told me. She's the head of infectious disease at the Minnesota Department of Health.

KRIS EHRESMANN: As historic and exciting as it is, nobody has time to celebrate (laughter).

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Some vaccinations may happen Monday, but it may be kind of ceremonial photo op-type events. Ehresmann says in her state, it's going to be days later - maybe as long as a week - to give time to train providers on this particular vaccine.

EHRESMANN: A safe vaccine is more than just the product. It's the whole process of administration.

MARTIN: So do states have what they need to pull this off?

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, they have done lots of planning, even full-scale dry runs. But federal funding for this vaccination campaign has not yet come through from Congress. A few hundred million has gone out so far. Advocates say there's a desperate need for more funding on the order of $8 billion. And that funding is especially key to reach the most vulnerable and the most rural. It is not clear when Congress is going to come through with that funding, but it's urgently needed.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin.

Selena, thank you so much.

SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Selena Simmons-Duffin reports on health policy for NPR.