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A Race to Save Lives

By Karen Dybis 

Michigan’s Role in Vaccine Development 

As COVID-19 closures hit schools and businesses, Michigan companies that specialize in health care and logistics played a pivotal role in vaccine development and distribution in the state and nationally, creating a unique kind of team work in a race to save lives.

From Pfizer’s role in manufacturing a vaccine to Henry Ford Health System’s leadership in vaccine trials to one leader’s role in distribution through Operation Warp Speed to Mejier’s efforts in vaccination clinics, these Michiganders were essential in getting shots in arms and creating a sense of hope that the virus could be contained.

“No matter what we do as an organization or what’s happening in our society, our mission is simple. We are authentically dedicated to improving people’s lives. Right now, that means leaning in to the unprecedented challenge that COVID-19 has presented,” said Wright L. Lassiter III, president and chief executive officer of Henry Ford Health System in Detroit.

Pfizer and Biontech Co-develop Vaccine  

The effort started in Kalamazoo. That is where Pfizer jumped into the fight, said Dr. Alejandro Cane, vice president of medical and scientific affairs, North America region for Pfizer vaccines. Pfizer and BioNTech entered an agreement in 2018 that sought to develop mRNA-based vaccines for prevention of influenza. In March 2020, Pfizer and BioNTech agreed to co-develop and distribute a potential mRNA-based coronavirus vaccine aimed at preventing COVID-19 infection.

“Our goal was to rapidly advance multiple COVID-19 vaccine candidates into human clinical testing based on BioNTech’s proprietary mRNA vaccine platform, while leveraging Pfizer’s broad expertise in vaccine research and development, regulatory capabilities and global manufacturing and distribution network,” Dr. Cane said.

Washington Calls Tacom for Logistics 

Around the same time, TACOM’s logistics expert Marion G. Whicker received a call from Washington, D.C. Gustave Perna, Operation Warp Speed’s chief operating officer, asked Whicker to join him on Operation Warp Speed, an effort by the U.S. government and public partnerships to facilitate the development, manufacturing and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, therapeutics, and diagnostics.

Her role was to build the infrastructure needed to distribute the vaccines as soon as they were ready to use. That meant “building out facilities, getting equipment to facilities, and getting people to the facilities,” Whicker said. Whicker agreed to commit to up to a year of her life to this effort. Whicker called it “such a tremendous honor and responsibility” but one that has special purpose.

“Given what this was, you forget your own concerns and you do what is necessary,” Whicker said.

Thanks to Whicker’s efforts and hundreds of others, the nation was ready when on Dec. 11, 2020, the Food and Drug Administration announced it authorized Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine for emergency use. It was a moment that brought “great pride and tremendous joy,” Dr. Cane said.

Meijer Plays Leading Role in Vaccine Rollout 

Grand Rapids-based Meijer Inc. took up the baton from there. Because of its large footprint with 120 stores/pharmacies, Meijer knew it could make an impact when the vaccine became available, according to President and Chief Executive Officer Rick Keyes. Meijer took what it had learned from its expanded seasonal flu shot program and in September began building its plans for the vaccine rollout.

“We are very proud of the role our stores and pharmacies continue to play in this massive effort to vaccinate people against COVID-19,” Keyes said. ““As a pharmacy partner to both the State of Michigan and the federal government, we have been able to receive vaccines and quickly administer doses to thousands of people in our communities.”