Smithsonian obtains vial from first US COVID-19 vaccine dose

WASHINGTON (AP) – The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has acquired the vial that contained the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine administered in the United States (US) as part of its plans to document the global pandemic and “this extraordinary period we were going through”.

The acquisition, along with other materials related to that first vaccine dose, was announced by the museum on Tuesday to mark the upcoming one-year anniversary of the pandemic.

Associated Press journalists were given an exclusive backstage look at the newly obtained materials, which include vials, special shipping equipment and the medical scrubs and ID badge of the New York City nurse who was America’s first coronavirus vaccine recipient.

“We wanted objects that would tell the full story,” said Anthea M Hartig, the museum’s director.

“Everything from the scrubs to the freezer unit that shipped the vaccines.”

Although there are a host of coronavirus-related anniversaries taking place, the museum chose March 11, the day last year that the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic. That’s also the week that much of American life shut down as the virus made inroads into offices, homes and sporting events.

Museum of American History curator Diane Wendt displays a small glass tube containing one of the original batches of polio vaccine in Washington. PHOTO: AP

“Our broadest mandate was to document this extraordinary period we were going through” said Diane Wendt, a curator in the museum’s medicine and science department. “We particularly had our eye on vaccine development from the start.”

The first dose of vaccine in the US was given on December 14, 2020, by Northwell Health, a New York-based health provider, to Sandra Lindsay, an intensive care nurse. The donation from Northwell includes the original Pfizer vials as well as the specialised shipping container, about the size of a hotel room fridge, that would deliver the super-cold Pfizer doses packed in dry ice. The museum also obtained first-batch vials of the alternate vaccine created by Moderna, and Lindsay donated her hospital ID badge and her white and blue medical scrubs.

“Our curators were particularly interested in the process and the packaging,” museum spokeswoman Melinda Machado said. “The story of the vaccine is not just what goes in your arm.”

The National Museum of American History closed on March 13 last year along with other Smithsonian facilities, including the National Zoo. It reopened on a limited basis in September but closed again around eight weeks later, before Thanksgiving, as local virus numbers started going back up.

But even with doors shuttered, Hartig said the museum had what she called a “rapid response collecting task force” of curators looking at ways to tell the story of this time in American history. Hartig said she also had parallel curation crews out gathering material from last year’s wave of protests against police brutality and systemic racial iniquities and is now looking at artifacts to mark the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol by supporters of then-President Donald Trump.

The new COVID-19 materials will join the museum’s extensive medical collection. This includes one of the first batches of the polio vaccine developed by Dr Jonas Salk in 1955 and specialised syringes and vaccination cards from that era, as well as an authentic iron lung machine, multiple artificial hearts and an extensive selection documenting the fight against AIDS.