Why dry ice will be critical to the COVID-19 vaccine effort

Local ice companies preparing for increased demand
Posted at 2:41 PM, Nov 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-24 21:35:36-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — As Americans wait for a regulatory decision on Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate, local dry ice companies are counting on the cold chain distribution to help boost sales that have significantly dried up during the pandemic.

San Diego Ice Company in the Midway District said it is already fielding calls from hospitals and clinics looking to order dry ice. The family-owned business has distributed ice products for decades, but vice president Anthony Toma said the company has secured the equipment needed to begin manufacturing dry ice from liquid carbon dioxide in December.

“Without this dry ice, there's no vaccine,” Toma said.

Dry ice is carbon dioxide in its solid form. It’s critical to shipping and storing Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

While Moderna’s vaccine can be stored in a standard freezer, Pfizer’s candidate needs to be kept at 94 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. That’s colder than winter in Antarctica.

The company says once it gets the green light from the FDA, it will pack vials in boxes with dry ice. Each shipper box can hold up to 5,000 doses and will be fitted with sensors to constantly track location and temperature.

Pfizer will ship the boxes from sites in Kalamazoo, MI and Pleasant Prairie, WI via FedEx and UPS, sending them to hospitals, clinics and pharmacies across the country.

From there, vaccination providers must store the doses in a way that preserves their efficacy. Long-term storage of up to six months requires an ultra low-temperature freezer, but outside of hospitals those units are rare.

The cold chain required for Pfizer’s candidate is “the most challenging issue” facing distribution, Governor Gavin Newsom said Monday.

Newsom said the state plans to assist Pfizer’s efforts by purchasing 16 ultra low-temperature freezers, along with 61 smaller freezers that will be positioned in high-need areas.

Another storage option is to keep doses in Pfizer’s thermal shipper box. Vials can last in the box for up to 15 days be refilling the dry ice, and Toma expects some of his dry ice will be part of that process.

“We're gonna play a big part,” he said. “We're ready for that and we're honored to do it.”

Toma is hoping dry ice will help thaw sales that have plummeted because of the pandemic. A lot of the ice business relies on big events and conventions that have been shut down. Restaurants have reduced volume. Airlines have cut back on food service.

“There are a couple of [ice] companies that I spoke with and they said, ‘If it wasn't for dry ice, we wouldn't know what to do,’” he said. “Dry ice is keeping most of us alive.”

Toma knows the implications aren’t just financial. Both he and his wife caught the virus and recovered, so they know just how important these vaccines are.

Starting in December, San Diego Ice Company will start producing about 1800 pounds of dry ice an hour, he said. That’s enough to fill 36 of Pfizer’s shipper boxes, which require 50 pounds of dry ice each.

The FDA has scheduled a meeting of its vaccine advisory committee on December 10. The agency is expected to announce a decision on whether to approve an emergency use authorization shortly thereafter.