Coronavirus has ravaged the world for more than a year. Yet one of the greatest inventions bringing the pandemic to an end was created in just 48 hours. Moderna developed its COVID vaccine in two days. The next nine months went toward clinical trials and approvals. The secret to such success: messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA). The biological innovation has been around for years but remained largely unproven until the urgency of COVID-19 provided the perfect testing ground. Now mRNA is disrupting the last 200 years of vaccinology. That means big changes for the pharmaceutical industry and new pressures in logistics.
Understanding mRNA Technology
Traditional vaccines train the immune system to defend against a virus by exposing the body to a weakened or dead portion of the virus or antigen. The new vaccines introduced mRNA, which is genetic material that teaches the body how to make the proteins found in the virus. When the immune system attacks the proteins, it learns how to fight the real virus.
The mRNA molecules are extremely fragile. Think of them like a single strand of DNA with an additional component called a hydroxyl. If the mRNA bends, the hydroxyl can sever the genetic chain rendering the vaccine useless. Cold temperatures slow down the chemical reactions and molecular movements that cause mRNA to degrade quickly. This is the reason mRNA vaccines require ultra-low sub-zero temperatures, with Pfizer’s rivaling the climate of Antarctica.
Implications for mRNA in Fighting Disease
As of May 19, 2021, more than 1.58 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been administered worldwide, many of which use the mRNA technology. However, fighting coronavirus may end up being the least significant application. Scientists are pursuing mRNA for vaccinating against malaria, the number one cause of deaths globally. Clinical trials are underway for treatments of cystic fibrosis, heart disease, tuberculosis, and HIV. Researchers also believe mRNA can create personalized cancer treatments specific to each patient.
Should mRNA prove valuable in combating these diseases and others, the technology will disrupt the pharmaceutical industry worldwide. In 2019, the global value of mRNA vaccines and therapeutics was about $588 million USD. By 2026, that number is projected in excess of $15.49 billion.
The mRNA Revolution and Logistics
While mRNA technology may solve many of the world’s health problems, it will create new challenges in logistics. U.S. cold storage already is in short supply with vacancy at just 10%. That does not leave much room for a surge of mRNA pharmaceuticals. These new drugs also will compete with growing demand for fresh produce, organic ingredients, and grocery delivery services that require cold storage space.
Constructing new cold storage warehouses is expensive at nearly double the cost per square foot of traditional warehouse space. Plus, building takes time. Converting existing spaces into cold storage facilities is often at the expense of ceiling “clear height” and energy efficiency. Also, many of the existing cold storage facilities in the U.S. are outdated. The average age is 42 years with 78% of all cold storage warehouses built before 2000. Without major upgrades, many will not be viable for the mRNA bio revolution.
In addition to the physical building costs, cold storage equipment for pharmaceuticals is costly. Ultra-low temperature freezers can cost tens of thousands of dollars per unit, require advanced monitoring and reporting technology, and warrant highly trained staff. Logistics providers must undergo a rigorous FDA audit just to work with pharmaceuticals. Those specializing in the industry already are in high demand and short supply—a problem compounded as mRNA technology becomes more popular.
Langham Logistics: Ready for the Revolution
Langham Logistics specializes in pharmaceutical and life science products. We currently ship and store COVID-19 vaccines including mRNA therapeutics. Our state-of-the-art cold storage warehouses meet strict FDA guidelines. A dedicated fleet transports fragile and high-value shipments maintaining temperature requirements from start to finish. Discover why many of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies trust Langham with their life-saving drugs.