With major logistical challenges, companies face a bottleneck in vaccine distribution


The pace of vaccinations in the U.S. is failing to meet expectations, in part due to inadequate production and supply. But President Biden is planning to invoke the federal Defense Production Act in an effort to ensure companies, manufacturers and states get what they need. Miles O’Brien reports on what some companies are already doing to avoid a bottleneck in production and delivery.


Judy Woodruff:

Finally, let’s dive in deeper on another concern about vaccinations, adequate production and supply.

As we have discussed tonight, President Biden is planning to invoke the federal Defense Production Act more frequently. That’s to make sure that companies, manufacturers and states can get what they need.

Science correspondent Miles O’Brien looks at what some companies are already doing to avoid a bottleneck in production and delivery.

Miles O’Brien:

Hurry up and wait. The Warp Speed effort that created COVID-19 vaccines much faster than conventional wisdom predicted has slowed to a crawl in the last mile.

The federal government had promised 20 million vaccinations by the end of 2020, but it left the responsibility and the planning to the states. Only about 17 million Americans have been vaccinated so far. The devil, it turns out, is in the distribution.

Biochemist Holden Thorp is editor in chief of the journal “Science.”

Holden Thorp:

Well, if you just take the us, with 300 million people, and you have got to dose the vaccine twice, that’s 600 million vaccine doses. That’s 600 million hypodermic needles. That’s 600 million appointments to go get your vaccine. This is the largest logistical challenge that the country has ever taken on.

Miles O’Brien:

One of the potential bottlenecks, the vials in which the vaccines are shipped.

Are there enough of these suits? This could be a potential bottleneck too.

I am suiting up to visit a clean room at SiO2 Materials Science in Auburn, Alabama. My guide? Lawrence Ganti, chief business officer.

This is a very busy place. What we’re seeing here is just a taste of what’s to come?

Lawrence Ganti:

Oh, this is just probably one quarter of what we’re going to have.

Miles O’Brien:

The vials they manufacture here for several pharmaceutical companies are unique, made mostly of plastic, until now not an option for holding drugs because it is not airtight.

Air causes chemical interactions that spoil the medicine. To bring plastic up to snuff for medicine, they use a process called chemical vapor deposition, which bathes the vials in a blue plasma containing microscopic particles of glass. This hermetically seals them.

Lawrence Ganti:

We’re basically bring an outer shell of plastic and applying a nano-layer, so really, really, really thin layer of glass on the inside of the container. And when we say thin, it’s 50 times thinner than a human hair.

So, it’s taking the best of plastic and fusing it with the best of glass.

Miles O’Brien:

They have been researching and developing the technique for 11 years. Coincidentally, it has reached maturity at this momentous time.

And they are sprinting to answer unprecedented global demand. The privately owned company received $143 million in taxpayer money from Operation Warp Speed, and is investing another $200 million of its own to expand. They plan to add more than a quarter-million square feet of manufacturing space by mid-2021.

Right now, they are producing 10 million vials a month. Each can hold up to 10 doses. Fast as they ramp up, SiO2 still cannot meet all the demand.

Corning is producing glass files that could ease some bottlenecks.

Brendan Mosher is general manager of Corning Pharmaceutical Technologies.

Brendan Mosher:

We developed proprietary low-friction exterior coating that we put on the outside of the vials. That allows them to run at filling speeds that are 20 to 50 percent faster.

This is a benefit that really matters for the pandemic response. Every hour, the more doses you can produce, means more patients and more citizens can get the vaccine.

Miles O’Brien:

Both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are using a new technique that carries the genetic blueprint of the spikes that cover the surface of the novel coronavirus.

It’s a way of teaching the body to make more spikes, which, in turn, prompt an immune reaction. But vaccines like these are very unstable. So, Moderna’s vaccine has to be shipped at minus-four degrees Fahrenheit, and Pfizer’s 94 degrees below zero.

Wes Wheeler:

That’s ultra-low temperature. That’s dry ice, and very, very difficult to store in large quantities.

Miles O’Brien:

Wes Wheeler is president of health care at UPS. The shipping giant is plumbing its deep pockets to buy deep freezer farms in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Netherlands.

Shipments containing vaccines are packed with dry ice, or frozen carbon dioxide, which is minus-109 degrees. Inside the package is a device they call a sentry, which records location, altitude and temperature. They are tracked in real time at command centers like this to insure the cold chain is not broken.

Wes Wheeler:

So, we will be taking batches from pharma companies into our freezer farm, storing them for one day, two days, one week. The question now is, how do we manage that cadence between incoming and outgoing vials?

Miles O’Brien:

No more than 30 countries in the world have an ultra-cold infrastructure. Huge swathes of South America, Africa and Asia, home to two-thirds of the global population, are not well-equipped to handle ultra-cold chain deliveries.

Dr. Seth Berkley:

In a case where there is a worldwide pandemic, nobody is safe unless everybody is safe.

Miles O’Brien:

Dr. Seth Berkley is CEO of Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance. The 20-year-old public-private enterprise focuses on vaccinating people in emerging countries. Gavi has immunized more than 822 million children and prevented 14 million deaths.

Along with the World Health Organization, Gavi has created COVAX, a multinational initiative to ensure vaccines are available everywhere. COVAX has agreements to distribute two billion doses, at least two-thirds of them earmarked for poorer nations, this year.

In 2018, Gavi found a way to maintain an ultra-cold chain to get a new Ebola vaccine into parts of Africa, where deep freezers are practically nonexistent.

Dr. Seth Berkley:

And we were able to vaccinate 330,000 people using an ultra-cold chain. So, in the most difficult circumstances, it is possible, but it’s expensive and, obviously, it’s complicated.

Miles O’Brien:

There are no less than 250 potential coronavirus vaccines in various stages of development right now. Some do not require the ultra-cold kid glove treatment, and some will only require only one dose.

Ultimately, the vaccine that people get may have much to do with how easy it is to get it to them.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Miles O’Brien in Auburn, Alabama.

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