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City of Cambridge Prepares To Distribute COVID-19 Vaccines

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Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said the city is in the process of determining the most efficient strategies to disseminate coronavirus vaccines, as the country prepares to embark on a mass vaccination campaign unseen in decades.

A vaccine developed by Moderna Therapeutics — a Cambridge-based biotechnology company — as well as another by Pfizer, Inc. and BioNTech await approval from the Food and Drug Administration, after initial data showed both are roughly 95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19.

“We've been thinking ahead on a lot of this as a city about, you know, we're doing a flu clinic and COVID drive-thru clinic — when the vaccine is available, how do we utilize existing structures?” Siddiqui said.

Though the city of Cambridge has begun ideating on vaccine distribution, Siddiqui said it is still too early for cities to begin playing a key role in the coordination of vaccine circulation.

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“It's a federal issue, and it’s a state issue,” Siddiqui said. “I think where municipalities ultimately play a role will be after these guidelines are made about who should be getting the vaccine first and so forth. The city and others will then take a look at these recommendations and then go from there.”

Siddiqui added that she made a request to the Cambridge Department of Public Health to inquire about the appointment of a vaccine task force to help with vaccine distribution.

“I asked the Health Department to appoint a vaccine task force, in addition to what the state has,” she said. “I think it's important that the municipality also has one, as we figure out these plans.”

Since the first doses of a coronavirus vaccine are slated to be released later this month, the Cambridge City Council will have to solidify its vaccine distribution plans quickly.

The unprecedented speed at which Moderna — along with the Pfizer and BioNTech collaboration — was able to develop its vaccine can largely be attributed to a new vaccine technology that uses messenger RNA. Unlike traditional vaccines which typically use weakened or inactivated versions of a live virus, mRNA vaccines instruct cells to produce a harmless protein unique to the targeted virus that the body can then recognize.

Willy C. Shih, a Harvard Business School professor who researches manufacturing operations in science-based businesses, said this mRNA technology has significantly streamlined the process of manufacturing mass quantities of the vaccine.

“What Moderna has to do is they have to manufacture large quantities of the mRNA, but they don't have to put them inside another viral vector,” Shih said. “Rather they just deliver the mRNA, so the manufacturing overhead or the efforts to manufacture is much simpler because you're handling much smaller amounts of material.”

Moderna expects to have 20 million doses of its vaccine available in the United States by the end of 2020, and 500 million to one billion doses globally in 2021, according to the company’s website.

“They've already received a lot of money from Operation Warp Speed to help them with their clinical trials, helping them scale up manufacturing,” Shih said. “There are a lot of what are called contract manufacturing organizations who are already at work, and most of the vaccine manufacturers will combine their own facilities as well as go out to contract manufacturers.”

The Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee of the FDA will meet on Dec. 17 to discuss Moderna’s request for emergency use authorization — one week after its discussion of the same request made by Pfizer and BioNTech.

—Staff writer Taylor C. Peterman can be reached at taylor.peterman@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @taylorcpeterman.

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