January 15, 2021
W.J. Hennigan and Alice Park for TIME, adapted by TFK editors
The delivery truck snaked its way over Northern California’s highways. Analysts watched every detail of its trip. They saw the stops the driver took. They knew the weather. Most important, they knew the status of its precious cargo: thousands of doses of COVID-19 vaccine.
In the truck were boxes of vaccine in trays. Each tray held at least 975 doses. They were packed with dry ice, sensors, and tracking devices. In December, Pfizer was the first company to ship COVID-19 vaccines in the United States. Pfizer’s doses must be kept frozen at between -112°F and -76°F. That’s below normal freezer temperatures. (Your home freezer is about 0°F.)
The analysts saw a problem. Two of the trays were too cold. The driver was told not to deliver them. “They never left the truck,” Gustave Perna told reporters on December 16. He runs logistics for Operation Warp Speed. That’s the U.S. vaccine program. “We returned them immediately.”
Shipping millions of vials of vaccine is hard enough. Keeping them properly frozen is even harder. So the government, drugmakers, and delivery companies have worked together. They’ve made a network of monitoring devices and detection systems.
Every box of Pfizer’s vaccine has a GPS device. It also has a temperature monitor. And it has a bar code. The bar code is scanned once it reaches a destination. If the doses go to the wrong place, or if they get too hot or cold, officials are alerted.
This information goes to the Vaccine Operations Center. That’s in Washington, D.C. Officials there watch over Operation Warp Speed. The team saw the temperature problem unfold in Northern California. Later, it saw the problem in Mobile, Alabama. “Same anomaly ,” Perna said.
This was one of the first delivery problems Perna’s team faced. It won’t be the last. But the technology meant to detect problems had worked. Replacement trays were sent to Alabama and California.
More On the Way
Another vaccine, made by the company Moderna, is now being distributed. It requires long-term storage and shipping at -4°F. That’s far less cold than the Pfizer vaccine requires. And more vaccines are nearing approval.
To keep track of it all, the government made new software. It’s called Tiberius. It lets state and federal agencies track their orders. They can follow their vaccines within the areas they serve. “They can dive in and really go into great detail on making decisions,” says Operation Warp Speed’s Deacon Maddox.
Operation Warp Speed hoped to vaccinate 20 million Americans against COVID-19 by the end of 2020. But only about 4½ million people had gotten a dose by January 4. That’s according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden spoke to TIME. He said the country “should be focusing on getting the vaccine out as rapidly, as widely, and as equitably as possible.”
The first people to get vaccinated have been healthcare workers and the elderly. But even with all the technology at work, a vaccine isn’t expected to be available to most Americans until at least spring.