Ford, preparing for arrival of COVID-19 vaccine, buys storage freezers

Ford Motor Co. confirmed Tuesday it has purchased a dozen freezers intended to store doses of a COVID-19 vaccine once one becomes available.

The Dearborn automaker did not immediately have more details to share, but said the procurement of the ultra-cold freezers was the first step in outlining a broader vaccine distribution plan, which the United Auto Workers has called on Detroit's automakers to establish as numerous pharmaceutical companies prepare to bring to market the COVID-19 vaccines they've developed. The news of Ford's purchase was first reported by Reuters.

In this March 16, 2020, file photo, a subject receives a shot in the first-stage safety study clinical trial of a potential vaccine by Moderna for COVID-19 at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute in Seattle.

"The health and safety of our workforce is our top priority," Kelli Felker, Ford's global manufacturing and labor communications manager, said Tuesday. "So we have ordered a dozen freezers to make a COVID-19 vaccine available to our employees on a voluntary basis when it becomes available. Beyond that, the situation is really fluid."

Some workers say they would be hesitant to take the new vaccine: "I just don't trust it yet," said Dvaughn Fisher, 25, of Monroe, a line worker at Ford's Dearborn Truck plant. "It's too soon. I won't be taking it from Ford. Ford owns a truck plant. It's not a hospital or a medical center. I keep my distance, keep my mask on, glasses, and clean up when I get home."

Manufacturers Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. recently announced that the two-dose, mRNA-based coronavirus vaccines they've developed are up to 95% effective at preventing COVID-19.

Pfizer on Friday asked U.S. regulators to allow emergency use of its vaccine, officially starting the clock on a process that could make a limited number of doses available as early as next month. Pfizer's vaccine would require stringent storage methods; it must be stored at "ultra-cold" temperatures of minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit.

Meanwhile, Moderna has said that it, too, plans to soon seek emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Moderna's vaccine must be stored at negative four degrees Fahrenheit or below, meaning it can be stored in a more typical refrigerator.  

Moderna's vaccine has been vetted in clinical trials at the Detroit-based Henry Ford Health System. The fact that it does not have to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures, and is stable at room temperatures for a few hours, gives it advantages over Pfizer's vaccine, experts previously told The Detroit News.

Other automakers such as General Motors Co. said they are also taking steps to be able to make a vaccine available to their workforces when one becomes available. GM, however, has not purchased any freezers, company spokesman Pat Morrissey said.

Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV "has assembled a cross-functional team, including medical professionals, that is studying the most effective approach to distributing vaccines to employees promptly when they become available," Jodi Tinson, spokeswoman for the Italian American automaker, said in a statement.

The UAW did not immediately have comment. Detroit automakers and the labor union worked together to develop a set safety protocols, such as mask-wearing and daily symptom screenings, that are used in auto plants.

The protocols were implemented in May, when North American production resumed following a two-month shutdown. So far, the companies and union say the protocols have prevented worker-to-worker spread within plants. They have been re-emphasizing protocols to their workforces as COVID-19 cases rise across the country.

The imminent arrival of at least two vaccines that could eventually bring an end to a pandemic that has killed more than 1.4 million people globally — including nearly 260,000 in the U.S. and more than 8,500 in Michigan — raises questions about how and to whom the first doses will be distributed. It's expected that essential workers such as front-line healthcare workers and vulnerable populations such as the elderly would be eligible first. 

It has also started the clock on figuring out the complicated logistics of how doses of the various vaccines will be distributed across the country.

Twitter: @JGrzelewski

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