The world excitedly welcomed Pfizer’s news that its vaccine was found to be 90% effective against the novel coronavirus in clinical trials, but now the logistics of how to safely and successfully get it to the billions of people around the world must be figured out, including how to properly store it for shipping.
“The logistics of distributing the Pfizer vaccine, if proven to be safe and effective, will no doubt be a Herculean task,” Andrew Peterson, assistant professor of philosophy at George Mason University, told Fox News. “Beyond the challenge of physically transporting the vaccine by air and land to distribution centers across America and internationally, there are the additional obstacles of keeping the vaccine at sub-zero temperatures and monitoring deliveries for theft.”
The vaccine must be stored at temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius or below. Breaking the cold chain could render the vaccine useless. In countries with intense heat and in regions with spotty electricity, these requirements will prove problematic.
Already, rural hospitals have expressed concerns over lack of funding to purchase the high-quality freezers that could potentially house the eventual vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its vaccination program interim playbook for jurisdiction operations as of Oct. 29, and said that an addendum with general COVID-19 vaccine storage, handling and transport information will be added and updated as coronavirus products are approved. A fully updated toolkit with COVID-19 information is not expected from the health agency until 2022.
“COVID-19 vaccine products are temperature-sensitive and must be stored and handled correctly to ensure efficacy and maximize shelf life,” the interim guidance said. “Proper storage and handling practices are critical to minimize vaccine loss and limit risk of administering COVID-19 vaccine with reduced effectiveness.”
However, the agency advised against purchasing ultra-cold storage equipment at this time.
“Ultra-cold vaccine may be shipped from the manufacturer in coolers that are packed with dry ice,” the Oct. 29 interim guidance said. “These coolers should be repacked with dry ice within 24 hours of receipt of shipment (day 0), and repacked again every five days to maintain required temperature. On day 15, the vaccine should be moved into the refrigerator, stored at 2 degrees C to 8 degrees C and used within five days (120 hours).”
According to STAT News, several larger hospitals in the U.S. already went ahead with their purchases of coolers, estimated to cost between $10,000 and $15,000 each.
“Hundreds of rural, small towns all across the U.S. have a higher percentage of elderly, low-income [residents], a higher percentage of the community with multiple chronic health issues,” Alan Morgan, chief executive of the National Rural Health Association, told the news outlet. “In this financial environment, you can imagine that there is simply no consideration of rural hospitals purchasing storage equipment for this ultra-cold distribution.”
Pfizer’s vice president for biopharma global supply chain recently said the company plans to use its own system to deliver the vaccine directly to health care providers, according to FiercePharma.com. The vaccine would be shipped from Kalamazoo to wherever the point of vaccination was planned.
Travel concerns aside, Peterson said the company and health regulators will also face another hurdle regarding vaccine hesitation if and when an eventual candidate is approved.
“Even if the distribution is smooth, Americans may still be reluctant to get vaccinated,” he said, citing several recent surveys.
He added that public health officials and the incoming administration would have to put out effective messaging regarding public health measures and vaccine safety.
“The challenges to distributing the Pfizer vaccine will therefore not only be logistical, but also challenges of public persuasion,” he added. “The incoming Biden-Harris administration will need to communicate that, like wearing a mask, getting vaccinated is the duty of all Americans.”