Logistics Challenges to Mass Immunization
If the vaccine by Pfizer and BioNTech gets approved, distribution and storage requirements can pose a significant challenge to mass immunization.
Pfizer and BioNTech just announced that their vaccine is over 90 percent effective but must be transported at minus 70 degrees Celsius. Demand would be significant and immediate and far exceeding what manufacturers are able to supply.
Distribution not only involves specialized transportation but shippers would also be involved in transporting the vaccine.
Distribution within EU
Manufacturing plants in Belgium and Germany would produce the vaccine for EU Member States. If Pfizer and BioNtech secure regulatory authorization, deliveries could begin by the end of December 2020, with some 50 or 100 million doses shipped worldwide. Two distribution and assembly hubs have been set up, one in Kalamazoo, Michigan and one in Puurs, Belgium, which is tasked with EU vaccine supply.
The goal is to distribute vaccines in liaison with strategic partners that are ready to ship by land and air. All boxes will be fitted with a GPS tracker as to enable shipment tracking. A control tower will be used to ensure that no temperature diversions or fluctuations occur. Dry ice can be added at dosing locations to ensure that the vaccine is stored at right temperatures.
Pfizer uses raw materials by suppliers in Europe and the U.S., including DNA elements, sterile water, antiseptic liquids, and antivirus agents. Shortages of raw materials arose as the manufacturer scaled up production but Pfizer confirmed plans to begin mass distribution in the first quarter of 2021. Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla also confirmed that they are working closely with component suppliers to ensure that there are no supply disruptions. However, he pointed out that this can be a concern during a global pandemic.
Extreme temperature requirements also pose a challenge. The three temperature ranges that are used for cold storage shipping are minus 80 °C, minus 20 °C, and 1 – 8 °C. While the first two only require special packaging, shipping vaccines at minus 80 °C requires dry ice. The ultralow chain that requires – 80 °C has been used for chicken and other animal shots as well as for the Ebola vaccine. Flu vaccines, on the other hand, require between 2 and 8 °C while Moderna’s vaccine needs to be refrigerated at -20 °C. Other shots that require shipping temperatures of – 20 °C are zoster and varicella.
For transportation, Pfizer uses temperature-controlled shippers where the vaccine can be kept up to 10 days at minus 70 °C. Given that pharmaceutical companies report spoilage rates of between 5 and 20 percent, due to temperature diversions, temperature control is the key to ensuring global supply and availability.
Where the vaccine would be stored is another hurdle for states. Some large hospitals and research labs at major universities have storage capacity but not pharmacies and physician’s offices. Pharmacy chain distribution centers are one option to explore as they have such storage, shipping vaccines to points where vaccinations take place.