Dry ice and freezer farms: Challenges of storing a COVID-19 vaccine

News this week from Pfizer that early data shows its COVID-19 vaccine is 90% effective is promising and providing hope.

But now, experts are looking at the next big challenge: How to safely distribute it because of the temperature required to store it and ship it.

Here's the thing. The vaccine needs to stay VERY cold, and by that, we mean 94 degrees below zero.

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That's colder than the average temperature on Mars, which our friends at NASA say is 81 degrees below zero. Also, most of our freezers at home are only at zero degrees.

But there are a lack of freezers needed for Pfizer's vaccine.

"A unique, very different freezer. They're like unicorns in health care. They are very hard to find," said Soumi Saha, a senior director with Premier Inc., a consulting company that works with pharmacies around the country.

"(It's) the coldest that any vaccine or any drug has ever been required to be stored at," Saha continued. "This is going to be the greatest drug distribution challenge that our country has ever faced because of the unique circumstances around the temperature requirement."

Another hurdle to clear could be keeping the vaccine stable enough to get it to rural communities.

"That is going to be a lot more difficult, because now we need to find a way to maintain that temperature while we are driving it out 20 or 50 miles in order to do an inoculation," said Azra Behlim, senior director of pharmacy sourcing and program services at Vizient.

Pfizer has begun sharing packaging and storage plans for the range of locations where the company believes the vaccinations will take place.

The company says it will have:

  • Specially designed, temperature-controlled thermal shippers utilizing dry ice to maintain storage conditions up to 10 days
  • GPS-enabled thermal sensors in every thermal shipper with a control tower that will track the location and temperature of each vaccine shipment across their pre-set routes
  • Three options for storage once a thermal shipper with the vaccine arrives to a point of us (POU) - ultralow temperature freezers, which are commercially available and can extend the shelf life up to six months, refrigeration units that allow the temperature to be stored for five days at two to eight degrees Celcius, or use of the thermal shipper that doses will arrive in, which can be used as temporary storage units by refilling with dry ice for up to 15 days of storage.


FedEx said it's among the companies willing to step in to help. Currently, it has cold chain centers, which are designed to help with shipping temperature-sensitive items.

FedEx is also adding dry ice freezers to some trucks.

MORE: Vaccine experts express optimism in fight against COVID-19

Richard W. Smith, the regional president of the Americas for FedEx, says the company services every zip code.

"We will be able to get vaccine to every administration or dosing center administering the vaccines to the American public in these communities where they are waiting for these vaccines," Smith said.

UPS is also working to help with distribution by building freezer farms.

According to a Bloomberg report from August 2020, the UPS freezer farms are under construction in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Netherlands. They can hold a total of 600 deep freezers that can each hold 48,000 vials of vaccines at 112 degrees below zero.

Meanwhile, Pfizer is expected to request emergency authorization for its vaccine as soon as next week.
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