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Commentary: Adding COVID-19 vaccines to the holiday rush

Moderna vaccine’s less challenging cold chain may yield competitive advantage in remote areas

About 3 million frozen vials of the COVID-19 vaccine were shipped last week. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 early this year was certainly facilitated by the speed and efficiency of modern transportation. It is with a touch of irony, but with a lot more hope, that modern transportation can deliver the new vaccines rapidly and widely enough to help end the pandemic sometime next year.

The race by pharmaceutical companies to develop and distribute an effective COVID-19 vaccine currently has two main contenders: the Pfizer and BioNTech partnership and Moderna. AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi are each dealing with problems at the clinical trials stage of vaccine development. If and when those three companies develop vaccines that are ready for licensing, they will have to meet or surpass the efficacy standards set by those already approved. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have demonstrated efficacy rates exceeding 90%. 

Shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine began moving through its cold chain distribution network last week. About 3 million frozen vials of the vaccine were shipped during that week. The vaccine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 11 for emergency use only. The FDA gave similar approval to Moderna’s vaccine on Friday. Both vaccines will likely be evaluated by the FDA for a general usage license sometime in 2021. 

FedEx and UPS have been using their air and ground services to ship the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to about 600 U.S. destinations over mid-December as part of Operation Warp Speed. Moderna, for its part, is ready to deliver 5.9 million doses to 3,300 U.S. destinations over its first week of distribution.

Other commercial airlines are assisting FedEx and UPS in their roles as contracted distributors. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines have arrangements with FedEx and UPS to provide extra capacity when needed. Also, Alaska Airlines is handling intra-Alaska transport once the vaccine and supply kits reach the FedEx and UPS regional hubs in Anchorage.

The subcontracted commercial airlines are transporting the vaccine on passenger airplanes as part of regularly scheduled service or as cargo-only flights. With the exception of Alaska Airlines none of them maintain air freighters in their fleets. Of course, several passenger airlines resorted to cargo-only flights as a means to maintain operating revenue amid the slump in passenger demand and travel bans during the first few months of the pandemic. Nonetheless, having GPS tracking and thermal sensors is imperative while in transit since the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is in thermal boxes containing 975 vials packed with dry ice. Pfizer chose Softbox Systems Ltd. to provide the boxes. These must be maintained at an ultracold temperature of minus 70 Celsius (plus or minus 10 Celsius). 

The Moderna vaccine requires frozen storage and transport at a more manageable minus 20 Celsius. Instead of using volatile dry ice, temperatures can be maintained using gel packs. However, both vaccines require two doses per person, with about one month in between, in order to be fully effective. The federal government has prepurchased enough dosages to vaccinate 150 million Americans. The intent is to do this over the first quarter of 2021. Since the Moderna vaccine has a less challenging cold chain, this may give it a competitive advantage in remote parts of the country that do not have storage facilities equipped for ultracold temperatures.

Since dry ice is classified as a dangerous good by the Federal Aviation Administration, further precautions must be taken by approved air carriers. The FAA’s safety alert for air carriers, released on Dec. 10, notes how dangerous transporting large quantities of dry ice can be. Certainly, the most challenging fact is that dry ice sublimates (i.e., goes from a solid directly to colorless and odorless carbon dioxide gas) at temperatures higher than minus 78 Celsius under normal atmospheric conditions.

Changing air pressures on takeoff and landing, combined with lower air pressure while in flight, make for a less stable sublimation process compared to maintaining dry ice in a warehouse or even in the trailer of a moving truck. Flight crews face dangers of asphyxiation and/or loss of brain function if the ventilation system is not working properly. They must also account for possible changes to the plane’s center of gravity as solid is replaced by gas. Therefore, having carbon dioxide sensors on board is merely the first step in the safety process. 

Thus far, Softbox Systems’ storage technology seems to have the sublimation process under control. Ironically, it was noted during an Operation Warp Speed press briefing on Dec. 16 that a few boxes reached their destinations registering temperatures as low as minus 92 Celsius. As a precaution, these shipments were returned to Pfizer. Gathering more data after the emergency development and distribution phase has passed will likely provide a more definitive temperature range for the Pfiizer-BioNTech vaccine. 

Pfizer noted in a press release that its vaccine is being manufactured at its labs in Andover, Massachusetts; Kalamazoo, Michigan; and Saint Louis. Offshore manufacturing is also taking place in Puurs, Belgium, with United Airlines, UPS and DHL handling flights into the U.S., Canada and Israel. Depending on the timing of regulatory approvals and vaccine demand, Pfizer and BioNTech project an ability to manufacture up to 50 million doses this year and up to 1.3 billion doses over 2021.

Moderna partnered with biologics manufacturer Catalent to handle the vials and final packaging at its facility in Bloomington, Indiana. The goal is to produce at least 100 million doses within the first quarter of 2021, with a majority of them allocated to U.S. destinations. The first round of the two vaccines is being delivered to hospitals and other approved facilities. The priority is for first responders and personnel in health care, essential services and long-term care facilities.

Operation Warp Speed is an intergovernmental program led by the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Other agencies within HHS have a prominent role — notably, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These organizations are overseeing how the FDA-approved vaccines are allocated and distributed with the United States.

Of course, a vial of vaccine is only a subassembly — albeit the most important one — for the final product called a vaccination. Hospitals must make sure they have sufficient supplies of needles, syringes, cotton, alcohol, face masks, etc. to support the mass of vaccinations expected. Many supply kits have been pre-shipped in anticipation of the vaccines. Unlike Moderna, Pfizer needs to have sufficient quantities of dry ice on hand, while contracted carriers may need their own supplies in order to maintain the integrity of the thermal boxes while awaiting transfer at interline points. Finally, those receiving their first dose need to remember to follow up in due course for a second one.

The initial distribution of vaccines is taking place at the same time as the holiday peak in retail shipping. While Santa Claus, a legendary logistician, has a lot more experience in dealing with the cold and making speedy deliveries, there is no doubt that the transportation industry will deliver a lot of much-needed holiday cheer over the next few weeks. 

Click here to see other commentaries by Darren Prokop on American Shipper and FreightWaves.

Darren Prokop

Darren Prokop is a Professor of Logistics in the College of Business and Public Policy at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Manitoba in 1999. Prior to his academic career Darren Prokop worked in government as an economist and in the private sector in inventory planning.