The Most Complicated Vaccine Campaign in History

The COVID-19 vaccines furthest along in clinical trials are the fastest to make, but they are also the hardest to deploy

The Atlantic
The Atlantic
Published in
10 min readSep 28, 2020

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A tangled pile of tubing with a syringe attached to one end, and a plunger on the other end.
Photo illustration: The Atlantic

By Sarah Zhang

On the day that a COVID-19 vaccine is approved, a vast logistics operation will need to awaken. Millions of doses must travel hundreds of miles from manufacturers to hospitals, doctor’s offices, and pharmacies, which in turn must store, track, and eventually get the vaccines to people all across the country. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, along with state and local health departments, coordinates this process. These agencies distributed flu vaccines during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic this way, and they manage childhood vaccines every day. But the COVID-19 vaccine will be a whole new challenge.

“The COVID situation is significantly different and more complex than anything that we have had to deal with in the past,” says Kris Ehresmann, an infectious-disease director at the Minnesota Department of Health.

The two leading vaccine candidates in the U.S. — one developed by Moderna, the other by a collaboration between Pfizer and the German company BioNTech — have progressed so quickly to clinical trials precisely because they are the fastest to make and manufacture…

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