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No dry ice shortage, FedEx and UPS say

Express delivery companies express confidence in production capacity to support ultra-cold COVID vaccine shipments

A FedEx Express worker packs a box with dry ice. (Photo: FedEx)

Concerns that there would be a shortage of dry ice to support new coronavirus vaccines that require storage at ultra-cold temperatures have receded in recent weeks, logistics executives involved in pharmaceutical supply chains say.

Experts as recently as last month said there already is a shortage of dry ice  — a solid form of carbon dioxide — to meet global demand for vaccine protection as well as increased food shipments, compounded by inadequate amounts of liquid CO2 because refiners are producing less ethanol and a byproduct of gasoline since fewer people are driving. Liquid nitrogen for cryogenic freezers is also in short supply. 

FedEx Corp. (NYSE: FDX), part of the historic shipping campaign that began this week along with rival UPS (NYSE: UPS) to deliver Pfizer Inc.’s (NYSE: PFE) COVID-19 vaccine around the U.S., is confident there will be enough dry ice to meet demand.

“Talking to all these vendors, they don’t believe that all this talk of a dry ice shortage is real. They think there is plenty of dry ice out there,” Richard Smith, regional president of the Americas for FedEx Express, told a Senate subcommittee.

Many health care and freight transportation organizations lack expensive deep freezers that can store Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine at minus 70 degrees Celsius to maintain its integrity. Other vaccines in the pipeline also need to be kept frozen or chilled, but the temperature requirements are less severe.

Pfizer developed a special thermal cooler that is packed with about 40 to 50 pounds of dry ice and can be used as temporary storage units by refilling with dry ice every five days for up to 30 days.

Each insulated box has dry ice on the bottom, five “pizza trays” with a total of 975 vials in the middle, more dry ice packed around it and a tracking device on top.

“I’ve never seen packaging quite that complicated. I’m pretty confident we’ll have a lot less spoilage [than some may think],” UPS Healthcare President Wes Wheeler testified. 

FedEx and UPS even invested in dry ice manufacturing capacity at their respective Memphis, Tennessee, and Louisville, Kentucky, package hubs. UPS officials say they can produce more than 24,000 pounds of dry ice per day.

Much of the dry ice will be packed and shipped to customers that need it for storing deep-frozen vaccines.

Smith even downplayed the need to top off boxes of dry ice moving through FedEx’s system, saying that would only be necessary in case of long delays for an international shipment. 

“We’re not being asked in this instance to do that while it’s in transit. Post-delivery there may be some dry ice top-off. Certain specialty carriers and vendors, like UPS Markken, may provide that service,” Smith said at the hearing.

Wheeler said third-party supplies of dry ice are strong, adding, “We’re fine for the first several months for dry ice.”

Nicola Caristo, the secretary general of the Cool Chain Association and a manager at SkyCell AG, a Swiss maker of temperature-controlled airfreight containers, concurred.

“The industry can manage. The dry ice will be available,” he said during the FreightWaves podcast Drilling Deep. “There are different sources of dry ice, both inside and outside the airport.”

Pfizer officials say further evaluation and evolution of their product could allow it to be shipped at warmer temperatures later next year.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]