Pharmacy ready to lead immunization charge as COVID-19 vaccine efforts ramp up

Sandra Levy
Senior Editor
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It could soon be the pharmacy's time to shine particularly bright. As pharmaceutical manufacturers sign deals with the Department of Health and Human Services for clinical trials and distribution of possible future COVID-19 vaccines, industry organizations are signaling that pharmacy can play a critical role in actually administering the millions of doses needed to curb the pandemic. 

The sprint for a vaccine continues to heat up following last week's news that the government would be paying $2 billion for the first 100 million doses of a vaccine that Pfizer and partner BioNTech can get to pass muster with the FDA. On Friday, the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Defense struck a $2.1 billion deal with Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline to support advanced development of up to 100 million COVID-19 adjuvanted vaccine doses — including clinical trials and large-scale manufacturing. The deal is part of the administration's Operation Warp Speed effort to begin delivering vaccines by year's end and would allow the government to use the doses in clinical trials or, if approved by the FDA, a COVID-19 vaccination campaign. 

“The portfolio of vaccines being assembled for Operation Warp Speed increases the odds that we will have at least one safe, effective vaccine as soon as the end of this year,” said HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “Today’s investment supports our latest vaccine candidate, an adjuvanted product being developed by Sanofi and GSK, all the way through clinical trials and manufacturing, with the potential to bring hundreds of millions of safe and effective doses to the American people.”

The manufacturing demonstration project will take place while clinical trials are underway, which the agencies said would expedite the traditional vaccine development timeline.

As Operation Warp Speed making progress in its goal of delivering a vaccine by the end of the year, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores said pharmacy is ready and should play a central role in the eventual deployment of COVID-19 vaccines.

“By any measure, America’s pharmacies present patients and the nation with an efficient, effective and essential component of vaccine deployment," said Steve Anderson, president and CEO of NACDS. "They will need to be part of the delivery plan for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments when available. There’s a community pharmacy within five miles of 90% of Americans, and that has powerful implications for reaching rural populations and those suffering from disparities in healthcare."

Anderson noted that pharmacy is well-positioned to reach a large number of Americans quickly, with chain and independent pharmacies serving patients across 60,000 locations with more than 180,000 pharmacists nationwide. He also said that pharmacy proved a capable partner in public health during the H1N1 pandemic 10 years ago, with pharmacies making up 23% of all the vaccines at the time — when pharmacy-administered immunization was still in its nascent stages. Currently, pharmacies administer roughly 30% of their vaccines at night, on weekends or during holidays, per one chain's analysis. 

"A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found that including pharmacies in a pandemic vaccination model can help the nation vaccinate 80% of the population seven weeks faster,” he said. “We look forward to remaining an integral part of the nation’s planning and preparations for administering vaccines and treatments as the American public expects."