Operation Warp Speed Leader On Logistics Of A Coronavirus Vaccine
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Stocks and hopes soared today with the news that an experimental COVID vaccine from Pfizer is 90% effective. Now, that does not mean a vaccine might be widely available right away. There are lots of hurdles to clear before a vaccine is authorized by the FDA, before enough doses can be produced. And then there's the task of getting those doses out to people. That is a task so complicated, it's going to require military precision, which is perhaps why an army general is in charge.
Gus Perna is the four-star general overseeing the logistics of getting a vaccine from manufacturers into people's arms. His official title is chief operating officer of the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed. And when he came to the phone earlier today, I started by asking his reaction to today's news about the Pfizer vaccine.
GUS PERNA: Oh, I think it's wonderful news - spectacular, right? It's just good for the whole country. And they're one of the six vaccines that we've been working with, and we suspect that there'll be other good news stories as we go along. But great to wake up to today.
KELLY: All right, let me get to the logistics. The Pfizer vaccine, I gather, needs to stay frozen at negative 70 degrees Celsius, which is way colder than the freezer downstairs in my kitchen could keep it. How do you keep vaccines that cold, first of all, just while they're in transit from manufacturer to where they're going to be distributed?
PERNA: Great question. The Pfizer vaccine is a minus 80. That is a ultracold chain requirement. It requires special refrigeration. This refrigeration is existent in 95% of all of our states and territories. There is one or two places where it doesn't, but for the most part, it does exist. However, that's not enough to ensure, you know, distribution to the entire country. So what Pfizer's done is they've created ultracold capability that they can put the vaccine into a container, and then it's filled with dry ice, which sustains the vaccine at the required temperature of minus 80.
And then, you know, we have to use discipline and diligence as we utilize the vaccine. You can only have it open so long. And when you do thaw it - right? - the stability requirements are that you have to utilize it within five days. These are all things that the pharmaceutical community understands, the medical community understands. And with the right planning, we can execute it with zero loss of vaccine doses because in the beginning, we're not going to have all we need, and we want to make sure we use it all.
KELLY: Do we have enough dry ice to get...
PERNA: We do.
KELLY: ...Millions of doses out there?
PERNA: We do. Numerous companies make dry ice.
KELLY: Because I know governors were warned last month that in some rural areas, that could be tricky.
PERNA: Yes. And so what we've got to do is work the planning of that. You know, we went out and found - we did surveys about finding ultracold refrigeration, and that capability exists at reasonable prices. So all that was passed to the territories so that they could go purchase ahead of the requirement. So coupled with buying actual freezers, freezers that exist, and the dry ice capability that Pfizer has developed, really, I think we're in a good place there.
KELLY: All right. Once, somewhere down the road, you have managed to transport everything and kept it cold and kept it safely stored, where do people go? Is this going to be a vaccine we roll up to our local CVS or Walgreens and get? Are there going to be mass vaccination sites set up for this?
PERNA: Some of the jurisdictions have thought about mass capability. Some are going to go right to brick-and-mortar and working with CVS and Walgreens. Some are going to utilize their hospitals, you know, immediately as they implement, you know, initial low-dose availability. It'll shift as more vaccine becomes available.
PERNA: Initially, it'll be managed. And then as more becomes available, then it'll be opened up for greater access to everybody.
KELLY: And then another question just on the details because it's so important for people to understand quite what an undertaking this is - the Pfizer vaccine and the Moderna vaccine require two shots, and you have to take them weeks apart. Is there a plan for keeping track of who's taken what? Say I get a dose at my CVS here in Washington, D.C., and then I have to travel to New York, so I'm in a different state. Will there be a centralized tracking system?
PERNA: Yeah. So - not centralized, but what we're working with is all the states and their capabilities and capacities that they have. And what we've created is a system that integrates all that information into one so that we can have an original database. But each of the states have a very, very detailed plan on how they're going to track people to that end because what we want to do is just make sure they get the right shot when their time is up.
KELLY: Is it clear to you, sir, to what extent you will be in charge of things under the Biden administration?
PERNA: I believe that the mission we have, as I just said - you know, develop, manufacture, and deliver safe and effective vaccines - is moving in the right direction. And that's what I've been put - made responsible for. And I am just going to keep my head down and drive to that end.
KELLY: Keep going until you're told not to. Yeah.
PERNA: That's exactly right.
KELLY: Are you already talking with the Biden folks? Or when does that start to...
PERNA: No, not yet.
KELLY: ...Ensure there aren't delays?
PERNA: Not yet. I mean, it is only 11:30 on Monday morning.
KELLY: Yes, we're just a couple of days into this.
KELLY: But, I mean, how does it complicate things - or not, as you see it - to be doing all of this in the middle of transitioning to a new administration?
PERNA: That's true. I don't think it'll complicate it. I think the - I think what we've done - I'll just be honest. And, of course, I'm a soldier first. I'm a professional logistician, and that's what I've been doing for 39 years. You know, this opportunity - I've been able to utilize my skills and my instincts to be a part of the team. And I think what the big lesson ought to be coming out of this is the total collaboration - right? - Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, industry, academia - to solve these problems. This parochialism of one organization is in charge I don't think is going to be effective, you know, in the future.
KELLY: Last question, and it's the very basic one. When might a vaccine - your best guess - be available that is effective and safe and available to every American who wants it?
PERNA: I think a safe and effective vaccine will be available initially in December at tens of millions of doses and will expand rapidly January, February, March, April for the total of the American people.
KELLY: So if I'm hearing you right, you're looking toward middle of next year for a...
KELLY: ...Widely available, safe, effective vaccine. That's your best guess.
KELLY: That is Gen. Gus Perna, chief operating officer of the Trump administration's Operation Warp Speed.
General, thank you for your time.
PERNA: Mary Louise, thank you for your time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.