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Solving the dry ice challenge for COVID vaccine

UPS invests in production capability, mobile freezer units to aid distribution; SkyCell ultracold airfreight container allows more vaccine to be transported per flight

Dry ice packing for UPS temperature-controlled shipments. (Photo: UPS)

(Updated Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020, 9:05 ET with details on Air France KLM Martinair and SkyCell)

Express delivery and logistics giant UPS (NYSE: UPS) on Tuesday said it has invested in machines to produce dry ice for transport and storage of frozen COVID-19 vaccines, while Switzerland-based SkyCell revealed a new ultracold container that enables larger vaccine shipments by air because less dry ice is required.

The new investments come as governments and industry are racing to prepare for a massive logistics campaign to distribute billions of vaccine doses around the world, with early candidates requiring robust cold-chain capabilities because of their extreme temperature sensitivity.

UPS, one of a handful of top-tier logistics companies involved in the initial delivery rush of vaccines, said its health care supply chain unit can now produce up to 1,200 pounds of dry ice per hour at the company’s Worldport package hub in Louisville, Kentucky. 

Spokesman David Graves said the manufacturing equipment represents UPS’ first production capacity of dry ice and that additional needs will be supplemented by third parties in Louisville, Ontario, Canada; and Dallas. “After thorough analysis, it was determined [those locations] represent the best logistics options for our air and ground networks, enabling us to reach populations most efficiently,” he said in an email. 

The dry ice, a solid form of carbon dioxide, is packed inside insulated shipping containers.

UPS, which has sourced dry ice from third parties in the past, already has built cryogenic freezer farms in The Netherlands and Louisville to store large quantities of deep-frozen vaccines. It joins rival FedEx (NYSE: FDX) in insourcing production of dry ice to ensure it can meet requirements of its pharmaceutical customers during transit. 

In addition to re-icing shipments moving through its hub, UPS said the increased production capability allows UPS to sell dry ice to U.S. and Canadian hospitals, clinics and other points of care, with next-day delivery. 

Several vaccine candidates show great promise, but the first two being considered by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization must be stored at extremely cold temperatures to maintain their stability. Pfizer and German partner BioNTech require their vaccine to be kept at minus 94 degrees to minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit before being thawed for use. Moderna says its vaccine can be kept at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit — common for a typical freezer.

Dry ice can keep Pfizer’s product at the required temperature for 10 days unopened. 

UPS is helping Pfizer get its vaccine to hospitals and other administration sites and participating in the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed program to deliver other vaccines and kits with related supplies.

Pfizer has said it plans to deliver about 50 million doses this year and up to 1.3 billion doses in 2021. The U.S. government paid $2 billion for 100 million doses, with an option for 500 million more doses.

Health care and logistics analysts say there already is a shortage of dry ice 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. 

“Enhancing our dry ice production capabilities increases our supply chain agility and reliability immensely when it comes to handling complex vaccines for our customers,” said  Wes Wheeler, president of UPS Healthcare, in a statement. 

The World Health Organization recently reported that 2.8 million vaccines were lost in five countries due to cold chain failures, and less than 10% of countries met WHO recommendations for effective vaccine management practices. 

AstraZeneca on Monday said preliminary tests of its COVID vaccine showed 70% efficacy and 90% when delivered in smaller twin doses. The AstraZeneca vaccine has been dubbed a “vaccine for the world” because it is much less temperature-sensitive and can be stored in regular refrigeration available in many parts of the world. It also is cheap, at about $3 to $4 per dose.

Mini-freezers for clinics

To further enhance its vaccine distribution capabilities, UPS said it will deliver ultra-low-temperature freezers made by Stirling Ultracold to smaller point-of-care facilities that require a longer-term freezing solution that dry ice. The two mini-models can protect vaccines requiring ultra-low temperatures ranging from minus 4 to minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit.

Freezers used for ultra-low temperatures are typically large, difficult to maneuver and have special power requirements that limit their use in clinical settings. The new Stirling products are portable and can be plugged in anywhere, with monitoring and data-logging options. 

Stirling Ultracold of Athens, Ohio, says it is working with several pharmaceutical companies currently involved in COVID-19 development to build a fleet of ultra-light freezers capable of storing approved vaccines within various temperature ranges, and that the small size could be a big asset in less developed countries that lack the transportation and power infrastructure needed for large deep freezers.

SkyCell light on ice

Meanwhile, SkyCell, a major provider of temperature-controlled airfreight containers that works closely with some of the largest vaccine providers in the world, has developed a product it claims can maintain temperatures of minus 76 to minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 120 hours without recharging, minimizing the need for dry ice. The company’s existing product line is designed to maintain temperatures between 35.6 degrees and 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit for 202 hours (8.4 days on average, which is extended by trucking or storage under refrigerated conditions).

The SkyCell cooling technology is battery-operated, but the new 1500 DF container also makes use of dry ice to get down to the lower temperatures. 

SkyCell, founded in 2012, said its ultra-cold container has special software that makes energy transfers more efficient, enabling up to 1.75 million vaccine doses to be transported in a single aircraft — enough to vaccinate between 875,000 and 8.75 million people depending on the vaccine and concentration. That equals 10 times the capacity normally allowed on an aircraft with typical containers cooled with dry ice. 

The more dry ice required, the less vaccine that can be transported on an aircraft because when dry ice warms and turns to vapor the CO2 displaces air and can suffocate the crew or poison those handling the shipments. If not properly loaded, it can also build up enough pressure inside a package to cause an explosion.

The SkyCell containers are also equipped with sensors to measure internal and ambient temperature and other environmental factors. They are also considered more friendly to the environment because their ability to self-charge without the need for dry ice and electricity reduces a shipment’s carbon footprint by up to 50%.

Artificial intelligence from Ansys allowed SkyCell to test thousands of prototypes in parallel, eliminating the time and expense of elaborate prototypes, and enabling it to bring the container to market in weeks rather than months, according to the company.

“Virtual modelling enabled us to rapidly and safely create a solution that maximises aircraft capacity utilisation and ensures cargo can be maintained at ultra-cold temperatures from factory to hospital,” SkyCell co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Nico Ros said in a statement.

Manufacturing of the reusable, super-cold containers will begin next week with the first tranche of 100 expected to be ready in January. That is enough capacity to move at least 7 million deep-frozen COVID-19 vaccines doses per month safely around the world, which could immunize up to 35 million patients. SkyCell said it has established processes so containers can be transported door to door.

On Wednesday, Air France KLM Martinair Cargo signed a deal to begin using SkyCell’s suite of containers.

In recent months, SkyCell has opened service centers in New Jersey, Rome and Seoul, South Korea.

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


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  1. John Smith

    Associated photo gives me chills. Scoop shovel is subject to spills over the side and front. 18″ between the tub and the box…can’t you move it adjacent, or put a guard down to avoid spillage? The scoop wielder is hardly dressed for the work. Loose sleeves and open collars allow dry ice to contact are skin if there is a slip and fall causing burns. Looks casual (sloppy).

  2. Chris Grassi

    I would assume that UPS was actually referring to Ontario, California, not Ontario, Canada. One of their regional super-hubs is in Ontario, California.

  3. Stephen Webster

    This is good FedEx and UPS and others need to work together. Any mistakes will cost lives. In Canada Purolator is also working on items along with possibly the military.

Comments are closed.

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 and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]