Moderna, McKesson and U.S. Army general ready to roll out new COVID-19 vaccine

DETROIT/LOS ANGELES, Dec 19 (Reuters) - U.S. distribution of a second COVID-19 vaccine, from Moderna, is ready to start shipping to more than 3,800 sites this weekend, vastly widening the rollout begun last week with Pfizer, the drug company and distributor McKesson said.

The Food and Drug Administration on Friday approved an emergency use authorization for the Moderna Inc vaccine, the second after Pfizer Inc and its German partner BioNTech SE.

Workers in pharmaceutical services provider Catalent Inc’s facility in Bloomington, Indiana, will fill and package vials with Moderna vaccine and hand off to McKesson, which will ship doses from facilities including Louisville, Kentucky and Memphis, Tennessee. Those locations are close to air hubs for United Parcel Service Inc and FedEx Corp .

The start of delivery for the Moderna vaccine will significantly widen availability of COVID-19 vaccines as U.S. deaths related to the respiratory virus set records.

“This is now a footrace between the vaccine and COVID,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said Friday at a briefing on the virus. He said the state expects to receive 346,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine next week. Those will go to 292 medical facilities across the state.

Pfizer organized its own distribution system but the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed, led by an Army general, is in charge for Moderna. The Moderna delivery system will have some of the same players as Pfizer’s but will differ in key ways.

Transportation companies UPS and FedEx are giving priority to vaccines on planes and trucks that are moving holiday gifts and other cargo. Their drivers will handle the bulk of the last-mile Moderna vaccine deliveries. They are going directly to vaccination sites, unlike Pfizer’s which was sent to large hubs and redistributed.

Moderna’s vaccine is available in quantities as small as 100 doses and can be stored for 30 days in standard-temperature refrigerators, while the inoculations from Pfizer come in boxes of 975 doses, must be shipped and stored at -70 Celsius (-94 F), and can be held for only 5 days at standard refrigerator temperatures.

Texas and Arkansas officials told Reuters they expect Moderna to be the primary vaccine for rural areas, which often lack the ultra cold storage equipment to store full trays of Pfizer’s vials. Once the plastic on a Pfizer 975-dose tray is opened, recipients have 120 hours to use the vaccine.

U.S. Army General Gus Perna, chief operating officer of the government’s Operation Warp Speed program, said on a Monday press call that doses of Moderna’s vaccine will be shipped to 3,825 U.S. sites.

Initial doses were given to health professionals. Programs by pharmacies Walgreens and CVS to distribute the Pifzer vaccine to long-term care facilities are expected to start on Monday, Gareth Rhodes, a member of the New York governor’s COVID-19 task force said. And a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel on Sunday will consider what groups should get vaccinated next.

“The logistics will be easier with the Moderna vaccine,” said Jesse Breidenbach, senior executive director of pharmacy for Sanford Health, which operates almost four dozen hospitals in South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.

“Thirty days in the refrigerator will make it a bit easier to deal with,” Breidenbach said.

Still, doses of vaccine must travel with security guards, including U.S. Marshals, and will be stored in locked refrigerators.

U.S. officials have said they expect to have 40 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines by the end of the year - enough to inoculate 20 million people. Both vaccines were about 95% effective at preventing illness in pivotal clinical trials with no serious safety issues.

Separately, U.S. officials said Pfizer is preparing to distribute 2 million additional doses of its vaccine to locations around the U.S. next week, with preparations for shipping beginning over the weekend. (Reporting By Joe White and Lisa Baertlein; Editing by Peter Henderson and Nick Zieminski)