From Tuna Fish To Covid-19 Vaccine – How Container Freezers Used To Ship Seafood Are Given A New Role

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Dec 14 2020
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On Friday, as expected, the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approved the Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and German partner BioNTech. The authorization, however, was plagued with news that White House Chief-of-Staff, Mark Meadows, told the FDA commissioner Stephen Hahn to authorize Pfizer’s Coronavirus vaccine on Friday itself – or prepares to resign.


Anyway, the approval means that besides the U.S. government, other countries that have been waiting for the green light from the FDA, will face huge logistical challenge in transporting and distributing the vaccines quickly and efficiently. The Pfizer vaccine must be stored and transported on dry ice at about -70º Celsius (-94º Fahrenheit) to remain effective.


The complex task will involve not only shipping companies like FedEx and UPS, but also land transporters. Dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide (-110º Fahrenheit) but when it melts, it turns into carbon dioxide gas, which can be harmful or even deadly. Therefore, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) requires crews to wear carbon dioxide detectors inside the pressurized airplanes.

Coronavirus - Fedex UPS - Covid-19 Vaccine Delivery

Air traffic controllers are authorized to give priority to airplanes carrying the vaccines, redirecting and delaying other aircraft to make sure the vaccine gets delivered in a timely fashion. United Airlines, the first commercial airline to fly the first FDA-authorized Covid-19 vaccines to the U.S. from Brussels, is authorized to carry up to 15,000 lbs of dry ice – 5 times more than previously allowed.


In essence, every single Boeing 777 could carry 1-million doses of the vaccine. Other airlines, like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, have been expanding its cold storage facilities and running test flights to “simulate” the conditions required for the vaccine to stress test operational handling process in order to sure it remains stable as it moves across the globe.


Still, dry ice requires re-icing. Enter Thermo King, an American manufacturer of transport temperature control systems for trucks, trailers, shipboard containers and railway cars. Known for revolutionizing the transportation of food through temperature-controlled shipping before World War II, the company has been working with pharmaceutical companies to ensure vaccines are preserved.

Coronavirus - Thermo King Super Freezer Container - Covid-19 Vaccines

Interestingly, the solution is there all along. The company just needed to tweak its existing freezer design to accommodate the vaccine requirement. They are using containers typically used to transport fresh tuna to Japan, which requires similar frigid conditions. “We took that product and we amended it,” – said Francesco Incalza, president Thermo King EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa).


Tuna must be stored at -60 degrees Celsius (-76 degrees Fahrenheit) to maintain its quality when it reaches supermarkets and restaurants. So the tweaks done by Thermo King, which is part of Ireland-based Trane Technologies, included additional insulation and adjusting the refrigeration system so it could get even colder and reaches the desired temperature to store the vaccines.


Each container freezer is 20-foot-long and can carry 300,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. This allows the vaccines to be transported by land or sea, in addition to air. However, the solution isn’t cheap. Imperial College in London said the expense of vaccination programs as a result of “cold chain” requirements like Pfizer could account up to 80% of overall costs.

Coronavirus - Thermo King Super Freezer Container - Covid-19 Vaccines Storage

Both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines are built based on genetic material called “mRNA” or messenger RNA vaccines – a new technology that’s never before been licensed in the U.S. These vaccines are not like a normal flu vaccine. The vaccine introduces the mRNA to the human body, triggering human cells to produce a “spike proteins”.


As a result of these proteins, the human body produces antibodies to guard against Coronavirus infection – creating an immune system. The benefit of using mRNA technology, however, is the speed with which it can be manufactured, unlike a traditional vaccine. While Pfizer requires super-cold refrigeration, Moderna’s vaccine can be kept at -15.5 degrees Celsius (or -4 degrees Fahrenheit).


Already, Thermo King, which opened the industry’s first container refrigeration unit manufacturing plant in China as far back as 2002, has been ramping up production of its new units at a facility in China a few months ago. The company first relocated production of its container refrigeration units from Louisville to Suzhou, China to improve delivery time in the Asian region.

Coronavirus - Pfizer and BioNTech Vaccine Injection

Indeed, as the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States approved and celebrated the rolling out of Pfizer vaccines, dry ice and its machine suppliers in China are in full gear. The Chinese manufacturers happily responded to the skyrocketing demand for the cold chain, with some companies’ export orders to the U.S. alone jumping by a jaw-dropping 10 to 20 times year-on-year.


Cold Jet, a US-based original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of dry ice blasting equipment, has received huge orders in the past 3 months. The Ohio-based company said the U.S. and Europe have already experienced a shortage of dry ice. Fengyun Industry, a dry ice production equipment supplier based in Shanghai, saw its exports to the U.S. jump 10 to 20 times year-on-year.


Sun Gang, a manager with the Shanghai office of Cold Jet, said – “The current problem is the extremely short delivery time. Normally, our production cycle for one piece of equipment is three or four months, but now it has been cut to two months, yet we still can’t supply enough of it”. Pfizer will further expand its dry ice capacity – planning to produce 100 tons of dry ice a day, compared with just a dozen tons now.

Coronavirus - Dry Ice Pellets To Store Covid-19 Vaccines


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