How to Ship a Vaccine at –80°C, and Other Obstacles in the Covid Fight

Developing an effective vaccine is the first step. Then comes the question of how to deliver hundreds of millions of doses that may need to be kept at arctic temperatures.


By David Gelles

Many things will have to work out to end the coronavirus pandemic. Drug companies will have to develop a safe and effective vaccine. Billions of people will have to consent to vaccination.

But there are more prosaic challenges, too. Among them: Companies may have to transport tiny glass vials thousands of miles while keeping them as cold as the South Pole in the depths of winter.

A number of the leading Covid-19 vaccines under development will need to be kept at temperatures as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit) from the moment they are bottled to the time they are ready to be injected into patients’ arms.

That will not be easy. Vaccines may be manufactured on one continent and shipped to another. They will go from logistics hub to logistics hub before ending up at the hospitals and other facilities that will administer them.

While no vaccine has yet been approved by health officials in the United States, preparations for a mass-vaccination campaign are gearing up. The U.S. military and a federal contractor are expected to play a role in coordinating the distribution. But a hodgepodge of companies are scrambling to figure out how to keep hundreds of millions of doses of a vaccine very, very cold.

Planes, trucks and warehouses will need to be outfitted with freezers. Glass vials will need to withstand icy climes. Someone will need to make a lot more dry ice.

“We’re only now beginning to understand the complexities of the delivery side of all of this,” said J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research firm. “And there’s no getting around it. These have stark temperature demands that will constrain access and delivery.”

President Trump on Friday asserted that hundreds of millions of doses of an unidentified vaccine will be available to all Americans by April. That timeline is more ambitious than what his own advisers have described. Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a Senate committee on Wednesday that a vaccine would not be widely available until the middle of next year.

Of the three vaccines that have advanced to Phase 3 trials, two — one made by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health, the other by Pfizer and BioNTech — need to be kept in a near constant deep freeze. (They are made with genetic materials that fall apart when they thaw.) Another leading vaccine candidate, being developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, must be kept cool but not frozen.

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