Science

2021 is the year that dry ice gets hot

Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine—on track to be the first delivered to Canada—must be kept below -70° C, which will require dry ice, and lots of it

When assessing the logistical challenges of distributing hundreds of millions of coronavirus vaccine doses across North America, a University of Texas molecular scientist remarked during a recent forum that it’s time to invest in publicly traded ice cream companies. An Austin-based TV station took the quip seriously, checked with ice cream companies and learned that, no, their freezers won’t be conscripted into the Great Vaccine Relay of 2021.

So purveyors of strawberry and mint chocolate chip can rest easy. Colossal effort, though, will be required from the rest of the cold-storage industry to house and ship the myriad vials of vaccine Canadians and Americans will need. The promising Moderna vaccine must be kept below -20° C, while Pfizer’s—which is on track to be the first delivered to Canada—must be kept in the “ultra cold” supply chain, below -70° C, which requires dry ice (solid-form carbon dioxide). “The sheer scale of doses to be distributed will overwhelm existing infrastructure,” warned a September report by pharmaceutical distribution giant McKesson Canada.

READ: Once vaccines are in Canada, they could be deployed within days

Already, extreme-chill medical freezers are in unprecedented demand. But, as with everything from personal protective equipment to toilet paper, suppliers and shippers are gearing up for this wartime-style undertaking. Dry ice makers say they can ramp up production to prevent shortages of their pellets and blocks. Logistics firms have lined up to store deep-frozen vaccines and transport them to warehouses and health facilities. Canadian government procurement requests suggest they’ll have suppliers in place by mid-December. This crisis has been a major test of society’s ability to keep its proverbial cool. Now comes the literal challenge.