Inside Our COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Operation

McKesson embraces the volume increase in COVID-19 vaccine doses as more become available



Read time: 3.5 minutes

Since the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines began shipping across the country in December, the U.S. government has made steady progress in its effort to make more doses available to the American public. As manufacturing increases for current vaccines and new ones enter the market – including the COVID-19 vaccine from Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., one of the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson, which recently received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) – McKesson is fully prepared to manage the larger volume of vaccines and the ancillary supply kits needed to administer them.

From a distribution perspective, we continue to stay on target to meet the U.S. government's plans to ultimately distribute hundreds of millions of frozen and refrigerated vaccine doses. With our four new dedicated vaccine distribution centers and our highly engaged team of experts, we remain well-equipped to manage the complexity of this endeavor.

But getting to this point didn’t happen overnight.

It took months of broad and thorough planning to build the right infrastructure, processes and partnerships to achieve success from the early days to the moment vaccine availability began to accelerate. We’ve taken extensive measures to maintain the safety and efficiency of the vaccine supply chain. And while the U.S. government makes all decisions about where, when and how many vaccine doses and ancillary supply kits we ship, we’ve been able to turn around those requests in a timely manner and within the specified guidelines established by the manufacturers.

“We’re working tirelessly to not only meet the new administration’s quest to administer 100 million vaccine doses in 100 days, but to provide the ongoing support required until the day the COVID-19 crisis finally comes to an end,” says Brent Wunderlich, vice president, vaccine operations. “From the start, we’ve orchestrated a comprehensive approach to building out the proven centralized distribution model, which has enabled us to be ready to pick, pack and ship multiple vaccines to hundreds of thousands of administration sites as directed by the U.S. government. We’ve always expected to distribute both frozen and refrigerated vaccines in larger volumes, and we are proud to do our part in getting more vaccines into the arms of people nationwide.”

From the Beginning: Building the Distribution Centers

Distribution facility under construction


During construction of the distribution center in Olive Branch, Miss., the team excavated over 200 tons of cement to install a large-scale freezer (pictured above), where the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine doses are now stored and packed for shipping.

Ready to Receive the Janssen COVID-19 Vaccine from Johnson & Johnson

Forklift operator inside distribution facility


The recent FDA EUA-approved Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine will be stored inside a large-scale refrigerator on racks like the ones seen above in our Kentucky location. The refrigerators are held inside four dedicated distribution centers, giving us the ability to process millions of refrigerated vaccine doses daily.

We will pack the one-dose vaccine inside specially designed coolers that can maintain the refrigerated temperature requirements of 2-8 degrees Celsius. These shipping coolers have been stored and ready for use for months. Future COVID-19 refrigerated vaccines will be stored and packed in a similar manner.

Pick and Packing the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine Inside Freezers

Employee packing the vaccines with ice packs for transport


Once we receive the U.S. government’s orders for the Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, we begin packing the vaccine into special cooler boxes (as seen above). Cold gel packs are added so the vaccine can maintain its required frozen temperature during transport. This work takes place inside large-scale freezers so we can maintain the integrity of the cold chain, a process designed to keep the vaccine doses at the pre-determined temperature from the moment we receive the vaccines to the time they get to their destination. We add a special temperature monitor inside each cooler box so that the administration site receiving the vaccine doses can verify they stayed at the right temperature.

A Fundamental Part of the Program - Quality Control

Distribution center employees inspect packages ready for shipping


After they’re packed, all vaccines are then moved to the quality inspection station (pictured above). The coolers are not sealed until they go through one more inspection to double check that the orders and quantities are accurate. The boxes are then sealed and moved down to manifest where our partners, either UPS or FedEx, scan the orders into their system and place labels on the boxes.