How Pfizer plans to distribute millions of vaccines at ultra-cold temperatures

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Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine is all but assured to become the first in the U.S. to win an emergency use authorization after an FDA panel voted to recommend the vaccine for widespread use.

The company’s vaccine needs to be stored at ultra-low temperatures, which will require special freezers and shipping methods in order to ensure the vaccine remains potent.

That is why Pfizer has developed its own thermal shippers that can safely store vaccine on the way to its destination. Each ‘cool box’ stores five trays, and each tray can fit 195 vials, which store five doses each.

That means a single box can contain nearly 5,000 doses.

"They are close to a carryon luggage, in terms of size, so they are not substantially larger than any of the things that we typically ship," explained Dr. Burak Kazaz, Professor of Supply Chain Management at Syracuse University. "So for that reason I’m not too much worried about the volume of the shipment, but the condition of it. The main issue is really keeping it at the temperatures we have designated."

The boxes are packed with dry ice, which helps maintain the ultra-low temperatures, and can only be opened twice a day for no more than one minute.

"In these cool boxes we can actually retain the temperature for having the vaccine potent for at least five days," said Dr. Kazaz.

Pfizer said the temperature can be maintained for up to 30 days if the dry ice is consistently replaced.

Dr. Kazaz believes that five days should be sufficient to deliver shipments from Pfizer’s manufacturing facility to hospitals and clinics to be administered.

The vaccines are thawed when they are ready to be used, and once thawed can be stored for an additional five days, according to Pfizer. After a vial has been opened, it must be used within six hours.

Dr. Kazaz said that this could present an issue later down the line, but likely not in the initial months when hundreds of millions of Americans are waiting to get vaccinated. While the logistics of shipping and distributing a delicate product such as a vaccine can present myriad issues, Dr. Kazaz added production will present a much bigger barrier to vaccinating the country.