Seven months of strategizing, $18 billion in funding and it’s all come down to this. Now that scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have authorized Pfizer/BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine, the U.S. government has cleared the way for the distribution of 2.9 million doses to the American public.
It’s just the first round of shipments in what will be a months-long process to inoculate some 300 million Americans. The decision Friday night sets in motion a vast logistics chain designed to reach each corner of the country. It took meticulous planning to meet the challenge of delivering a sea of doses at controlled temperatures so doctors could administer shots as soon as next week.
The blueprint for the national strategy is represented in a dozen maps and charts Scotch-taped to the walls of a seventh-floor office in downtown Washington, D.C., where General Gustave Perna and his team-leading the government vaccine effort have devised the logistics operation that they hope will change the trajectory of American history. In an interview with TIME this week before FDA authorization, Perna compared vaccine delivery day to the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II, an event more commonly known as “D-Day.” He uses the same term when discussing plans for the day Pfizer will begin delivering America’s first shipment of vaccines. “This is a game-changer,” he says. “Not to dramatize the situation we’re in, but we’re at war with this virus. And the vaccine is the beginning of the end.”
The countdown to Perna’s personal D-Day began in May when he was put in charge of logistics for the federal vaccine program, dubbed Operation Warp Speed (OWS), an unlikely collaborative effort led by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Defense to develop, manufacture and deliver COVID vaccines to Americans. The four-star Army general was tapped because of his 39 years of service as a logistics officer, most recently as commander of U.S. Army Materiel Command which oversees the branch’s global supply chain.
The need for a vaccine has grown increasingly urgent over the past week. On Friday, the U.S. reported 3,309 deaths, the highest toll in a single day the country has seen to date, according to Johns Hopkins University. The grim tally broke the previous record set Wednesday at 3,124. The number of patients hospitalized with COVID reached 108,000, according to the COVID Tracking Project—also a record, one that’s created critical shortages in about 1 in 8 U.S. hospitals, HHS data shows.
An FDA assessment made public on Dec. 8 shows Pfizer’s vaccine is around 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 disease, and on Dec. 11, the FDA formally issued emergency use authorization of the shot. The vaccine is already authorized for use in the UK, where it was administered this week for the first time; it’s also been approved in Canada where the first shots are expected next week.