With vaccine distribution ramping up, the fight against COVID-19 now faces a new hurdle: securing qualified cold storage.
Approximately 46% of the 36 million vaccine doses distributed nationally have been administered to patients (as of January 21, 2021). The Biden administration is working toward an additional 100 million vaccines by the end of April 2021. Both vaccines currently available (Pfizer-BioNTech’s and Moderna’s) leverage mRNA technology, which requires storage at temperatures not traditionally utilized for cell-based vaccines (such as the flu vaccine). Procuring and validating frozen storage suitable for COVID-19 vaccines has contributed to some of the vaccination rollout challenges already faced and is a potential sign of the chilly times ahead.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires storage of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at -80°C to -60°C. That is far colder than temperatures offered by standard upright freezers (which operate closer to -20C). While Moderna’s specifications are less extreme, long-term storage still requires a deep freeze. That has doctor’s offices, pharmacies, and most hospitals scrambling for ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers.
They are not likely to find one quickly.
Thermo Fisher Scientific, one of the largest dealers of ULT freezers, shows a minimum 30-day backorder. Larger units have wait times of 60-plus days. These freezers come with hefty price tags too ranging from $5,000 to $25,000.
Companies outside of healthcare are competing for the freezers as well. Ford Motor Company purchased a dozen units to ensure all employees have vaccine access when they become widely available. Other companies like top poultry producer Sanderson Farms and entertainment software company Activision Blizzard are following suit. Many businesses deemed essential during the pandemic also indicate they will look to vaccinate their employees internally.
Amazon’s CEO of Worldwide Consumer business wrote to the Centers for Disease Control in December requesting priority access to the vaccine for its warehouse, data center, and Whole Foods employees. The request emphasized how these frontline workers have played an essential role in delivering necessary products to consumers during the pandemic. Amazon already has contracted with a third-party healthcare provider to administer the vaccine. The company employees more than 800,000 people across the U.S. making it the nation’s second largest employer after Walmart.
In a letter directly to President Biden, the CEO committed Amazon’s “operations, information technology, and communications capabilities and expertise to assist [the] administration’s vaccination efforts. Our scale allows us to make a meaningful impact immediately in the fight against COVID-19, and we stand ready to assist you in this effort.”
Other big-name companies including Walmart, Starbucks, and Microsoft are stepping up to offer assistance in speeding up vaccinations as well.
The influx of support further strains the storage challenge. Anticipating the issue, Pfizer developed thermal shippers using dry ice that maintain the required ultra-low temperature for up to 10 days unopened. While this lessens one problem, it might create another: shortages of dry ice.
The pandemic increased the need for dry ice throughout much of 2020. As people stayed home, restaurants and meal delivery services used more dry ice. However, at the same time, ethanol production went down by as much as 25% because people drove less. Ethanol produces carbon dioxide that in turn is used to produce dry ice.
As vaccine distribution continues increasing throughout 2021, dry ice suppliers are unsure if they can keep up with demand. Each Pfizer shipper requires 40-50 pounds of dry ice, plus additional “topping off” after opening. UPS and FedEx are investing in dry ice manufacturing capacity at their respective Tennessee and Kentucky hubs to ward off shortages. UPS now can generate more than 24,000 pounds of dry ice daily.
While FedEx and UPS handle most of the vaccine distribution currently, other global logistics providers still have an important role to play.
Langham Logistics is helping Indiana healthcare systems procure and operate ultra-low temperature freezers. The pharmaceutical-grade freezers contain advanced technology new to some healthcare providers. Langham is placing, validating, and training on the machines. This unique partnership serves three major purposes. First, better access to ULT freezers paves the way for quicker distribution of vaccines. By monitoring the units, Langham helps healthcare facilities meet CDC efficacy requirements so vaccines do not go to waste. The move also improves supply chain storage capacity over the next six months as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) taps additional logistics companies for support.
Langham Logistics has been on the front line of the fight against COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The State of Indiana tapped Langham to store, manage, and distribute millions of pieces of personal protective equipment to hospitals, long-term care facilities, penitentiaries, and schools across the state. Helping healthcare and other institutions create and maintain storage capabilities for the vaccine represents just another critical way Langham is helping save Hoosier lives.