By Jared S. Hopkins
McKesson Corp., one of the world's largest drug wholesalers and the biggest vaccine middleman in the U.S., will be a main distributor of Covid-19 vaccines nationwide should the shots prove to work safely, federal health officials said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is exercising an option in an existing 2016 contract with McKesson for the distribution of a vaccine in the event of a pandemic, the U.S. Health and Human Services Department said Friday.
Under the terms, McKesson would distribute coronavirus vaccines and related supplies as directed by the CDC to clinics, hospitals and other sites that would administer the shots, the department said.
"Today's announcement puts another building block in place as the nation moves toward a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine," CDC Director Robert Redfield said. "McKesson is a leader in the field."
Financial terms weren't disclosed for the arrangement, which marks the latest move by the U.S. government -- and its Operation Warp Speed -- to prepare for the rollout of coronavirus vaccines, this time regarding their distribution to facilities where doses would be administered to patients.
The federal government has struck deals with vaccine makers that could be worth more than $9 billion to secure hundreds of millions of doses, in addition to taking steps to guarantee supplies of vials and syringes.
The collaboration with McKesson is the first major step toward determining how the shots would be distributed from manufacturing plants and where Americans will need to go to receive them. Yet many questions remain, including, for instance, about who will get initial doses, which are expected to be limited. There will also be challenges such as transporting and storing vaccines that need to be kept at freezing temperatures.
By choosing McKesson, the federal government appears to be trying to take advantage of the infrastructure used to deliver children's vaccines. The government used the childhood vaccination program to send shots for the H1N1 virus to hospitals and doctors' offices during the avian-flu pandemic in 2009 and 2010. McKesson distributed that vaccine.
The company, based in Irving, Tex., is the nation's largest distributor of seasonal flu vaccines. It distributes up to 150 million doses of all vaccines annually to public-health clinics, hospitals, physician offices, nursing homes, pharmacies and other facilities, it said.
"Since the onset of the pandemic, McKesson has leveraged our deep expertise to help maintain the integrity of the health-care supply chain, source and distribute personal protective equipment to front-line workers and stand up Covid-19 testing," Chief Executive Brian Tyler said.
Federal health officials said Thursday that the U.S. government would purchase enough vaccines for the entire population, ensure they are provided free of charge and cover the cost of their distribution.
Pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna Inc. and AstraZeneca PLC, as well as a partnership between Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE are already evaluating their shots in large, 30,000-person trials around the world. Results are expected in the coming months, and health officials have said a vaccine could be authorized for emergency use as early as November.
--Rebecca Ballhaus contributed to this article.
Write to Jared S. Hopkins at firstname.lastname@example.org