Challenges Faced by Freight Companies Shipping the Pfizer BioNTech Vaccine

The vaccine which uses new, mRNA (messenger RNA technology) must be stored and transported at Ultra Low Temperatures (ULT) of between -76F and -122F, known as the ‘cold-chain’, the vaccine’s temperature is closely monitored from when it leaves the production site, during transportation, be that by air, land or sea, until it is received and checked at its final destination.

The messenger RNA (mRNA) which is used in this vaccine is very easily destroyed, and the only way to prevent it from degrading is to store it at these ULTs.

The boxes or specialist cool bags in which the vaccines are transported are all monitored minute-by-minute for changes in temperature. Each box contains a temperature tracker, which is separate to the regular refrigeration unit thermometer and data is send from each box to the person in charge of that box at ever point in transit.

The vaccine must maintain and not deviate from this ultra low temperature range during transportation for more than 20 minutes without risking potentially spoiling or reducing its efficacy.

The British prime minister said his country faced “immense logistical challenges” in distributing the vaccine, and they are far closer to where it is being produced.

These vaccines have to be transported from Pfizer’s manufacturing plant in Belgium to some of the most distant corners of the world, and that is massive logistical challenge at these Ultra Low Temperatures.

Most refrigerated trucks freezer’s only go down to around -20F, when you need to maintain an average temperature of -94F, most of the people used to hauling frozen food won’t be moving this new product.

To overcome this issue special containers are used and packed with dry ice which is the solid form of carbon dioxide which has a surface temperature of -109.3 degrees Fahrenheit.

Truck carriers are often involved in the first and ‘last-mile’ of delivery in vaccine cold chains.

Moderna’s vaccine, which is also an RNA vaccine, requires below freezing temperatures for storage, but at a far more comfortable -4F, which could possibly be achieved in countries around the world which lack good road and rail infrastructure, which would make it difficult for even the best carriers to deliver the Pfizer vaccine.

Although dry ice isn’t that expensive to buy at around $1.00 to $3.00 per pound, there has been talk of a dry ice shortage, several dry ice producers in the US told CNN they’ve already had offers for their entire output.

One step ahead of the game, UPS have already invested in its own dry ice producing machines at depots and a company called SkyCell has claimed to have developed a special IoT-enabled, temperature-controlled air freight containers that will allow the safe transportation of COVID-19 vaccines around the world, regardless of outside temperatures.

As if the real world obstacles weren’t bad enough, phishing emails were sent out in an attempt to hack organisations linked to the Cold Chain Equipment Optimisation Platform (CCEOP) back in December 2020.

At the time of writing, the specialist task of cold chain transport in America has been left to FedEx Express & UPS in partnership with Operation Warp Speed, who are well versed in this type of operation.

Their teams have years of experience moving pharmaceutical goods which are highly temperature sensitive and often employ a two person team on each truck, a bit like on a commercial airliner, to ensure the load is never left unattended, and a backup driver is always avaiable should there be any issues with the primary driver.

Developing that expertise “took us about 10 years, You can’t haul chicken nuggets and then transport oncology drugs.”

Andrew Boyle, co-president of Boyle Transportation

While countries like America, Canada and most of central Europe have good infrastructure and freight companies who are adept at maintaining the ‘cold chain’ that is required with this vaccine, many others do not, and delivering the vaccine there will be an even bigger challenge for all involved in the process.

Especially in places where not every road has asphalt and not every healthcare centre has refrigeration.