The US federal government plans to release 2.9 million doses to 64 major cities in the first phase.

A convoy of trucks leaves the Pfizer Global Supply manufacturing plant, amid the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Portage, Michigan, US, December 13, 2020.
A convoy of trucks leaves the Pfizer Global Supply manufacturing plant, amid the coronavirus disease outbreak, in Portage, Michigan, US, December 13, 2020. (Reuters)

Three semi-trucks carrying the first shipments of Pfizer Inc's Covid-19 vaccine have left a factory in Michigan, kicking off a historic project to stop a surging pandemic that is claiming more than 2,400 lives a day in the United States.

Mask wearing workers at a Pfizer factory in Michigan began packing the first shipments of its Covid-19 vaccine in dry ice shortly after 1130 GMT on Sunday. 

Three trucks carrying pallets of boxed, refrigerated vaccines rolled away from the central Michigan facility of Pfizer, escorted by body armour-clad security officers in a pickup truck and an SUV.

In a novel process that will need to become a daily routine, workers removed pizza-boxed-sized cartons containing vaccine vials from a freezer. They placed them in large, blue coolers, before these were boxed and labeled, as shown on a network television video feed.

Workers clapped and whistled as the first boxes headed to the trucks. The long-awaited moment comes as the death toll was approaching 300,000 and infections and hospitalisations set daily records in the United States. 

It will take months before most US residents can get a Covid-19 vaccine.

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2.9 million doses to 64 states

The federal government plans to release the nation’s first 2.9 million doses to 64 states, US territories, and major cities, as well as five federal agencies. Although the federal government is coordinating distribution efforts, states have the final decision over who gets the first shots. 

The federal government is sending the first shipments to more than 600 locations.

Companies in a range of industries are lobbying state and federal officials to give priority to their workers in the line of millions waiting for the vaccine and a return to life free from the fear of the deadly illness.

US regulators late on Friday authorised the vaccine from Pfizer and partner BioNTech for use.

"We have spent months strategising with Operation Warp Speed officials and our healthcare customers on efficient vaccine logistics, and the time has arrived to put the plan into action," Wes Wheeler, president of UPS Healthcare, said on Saturday.

Pfizer's dry-ice cooled packages can hold as many as 4,875 doses, and the first leg of their journey will be from Kalamazoo to planes positioned nearby. The aircraft will shuttle vaccine packages to United Parcel Service or FedEx air cargo hubs in Louisville, Kentucky, and Memphis, Tennessee, respectively.

From there, they will be trucked or flown to facilities close to the 145 US sites earmarked to receive the first doses.

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Delivery firms give vaccine top priority

Familiar UPS and FedEx package delivery drivers are giving the vaccine top priority over holiday gifts and other parcels. They will deliver many of the "suitcases" into the hands of healthcare providers on Monday. The shipments are the first of three expected this week.

Healthcare workers and elderly residents of long-term care homes are first in line to receive the inoculations.

Pfizer's inoculations have the most restrictive requirements for shipping and storage temperature, minus 70 Celsius.

Both companies have expertise handling fragile medical products and are leaving little room for error. They are providing temperature and location tracking to backup devices embedded in the Pfizer boxes, and tracking each shipment throughout its journey.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies