How Pfizer plans to keep its vaccine at subarctic temperatures during transport

Pfizer is now the first company to apply for emergency authorization of its coronavirus vaccine, setting off a sprint by scientists at the Food and Drug Administration to approve it.

About 25 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine may become available in December, 30 million in January and 35 million more in February and March, according to information presented to the National Academy of Medicine this week. Recipients will need two doses, three weeks apart.

CBS News got an inside look at the logistical challenges of getting Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine to the public, including a required storage temperature you would find in the coldest places on Earth.

Colder than Antarctica in winter, dry ice — made from carbon dioxide — is crucial for moving and storing these vaccines. Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be kept at 94 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Dry ice helps maintain the subarctic temperature during shipping. 

Pfizer developed a thermal shipper, which they call a “cool box,” for the trip. It’s about the size of a carry-on suitcase.

Cool box
Pfizer’s “cool box” will help transport its coronavirus vaccine.

CBS News

“There’s dry ice that goes around it, and then it has actually a device within it that has a continuous GPS and temperature monitor,” said Tanya Alcorn, vice president of Pfizer’s BioPharma Global Supply Chain. 

Each “cool box” contains a minimum of about 1,000 vaccine doses, which poses a challenge for rural communities with no place to store them.

Tim Size, executive director of the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative, which represents 43 rural hospitals across the state, said, “I don’t think anybody wants to give a message that rural Wisconsin or rural America is second class.”

“If you can ship 1,000, you can ship 200,” he added. “It’s more expensive. It’s more cumbersome, but it allows rural to be getting vaccinated at the same time urban’s getting vaccinated.”

Pfizer told CBS News they are working to ensure equitable distribution, which is just one of many challenges. Frontline health care workers will be among the first to get the vaccine, but according to a recent Gallup Poll, only 58% of Americans said they would get it when offered to the general public.

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