January 15, 2021
W.J. Hennigan and Alice Park for TIME, adapted by TFK editors
As the delivery truck snaked its way over Northern California’s highways, analysts watched every aspect of its journey. They could see the stops the driver made. They knew the weather outside. Most important, they knew the condition of the precious cargo on board: thousands of doses of COVID-19 vaccine.
In the truck were boxes containing trays of the vaccine. Each tray held at least 975 doses, packed with sensors, tracking devices, and dry ice. In December, Pfizer became the first company to ship COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. The doses must remain frozen at between -112°F and -76°F. That’s colder than normal freezer temperatures. (Your home freezer is probably about 0°F.)
The analysts spotted a problem. A couple of the trays had gotten too cold. A call was made to the truck driver, who was told not to deliver those trays. “They never left the truck,” Gustave Perna told reporters on December 16. He’s in charge of logistics for Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. vaccine program. “We returned them immediately.”
Shipping COVID-19 vaccine is tricky. Transporting millions of vials to each corner of the country is tough on its own. But keeping the doses properly frozen is even harder. To ensure safe delivery, the U.S. government, drugmakers, and delivery companies have developed a network of monitoring devices and detection systems.
Every box of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine includes a GPS device, a temperature monitor, and a bar code that’s scanned once it reaches its destination. If the doses end up in the wrong location, or if the vials get too hot or cold, officials are immediately alerted.
This information streams into the Vaccine Operations Center, in Washington, D.C. That’s where officials watch over Operation Warp Speed. There, dozens of analysts work behind rows of computer monitors. Four large screens glow with data about the day’s deliveries. The team there watched the temperature problem unfold in Northern California. Later, it saw the same issue in Mobile, Alabama. “Same anomaly ,” Perna says.
This was one of the first delivery problems that Perna and his team faced. It won’t be the last. The trouble with the deliveries was an inconvenience. But officials were glad that the technology meant to detect it 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 developed new software. It’s called Tiberius. It lets state and federal agencies see their orders and track 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.
Each Thursday, vaccine producers tell Operation Warp Speed how much vaccine is available for the upcoming week. On Friday, Tiberius runs a program to determine how many doses are available to each state. On Saturday, states finalize their orders. Deliveries arrive on Monday.
Operation Warp Speed had hoped to vaccinate 20 million Americans against COVID-19 by the end of 2020. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 4.5 million people had gotten a dose by January 4. Former CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden told TIME that the country “should be focusing on getting the vaccine out as rapidly, as widely, and as equitably as possible.”
The first people to be vaccinated have been healthcare workers and the elderly. But even with technology lending a helping hand, a vaccine isn’t expected to be available to most Americans until at least spring.