Delivering a vaccine for a global pandemic that has caused nearly 1.5 million deaths and has infected more than 64 million people – as of early December 2020 – will require a logistical effort of extraordinary complexity.
In the following Q&A, Associate Professor Tinglong Dai of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School offers insights into the process of administering COVID-19 vaccines in the United States as well as in other parts of the world. Dai is an expert in operations management and business analytics, with a focus on the health care industry.
QUESTION: We know that some vaccines must be kept at extremely cold temperatures. What are the different temperature requirements of the first three vaccine candidates? And what are the supply chain implications?
TINGLONG DAI: The three leading vaccine candidates, from Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca/Oxford, are very different in temperature requirements.
If you have heard people talk about a vaccine that needs to be stored at Arctic-winter temperatures, that is Pfizer’s. The Pfizer vaccine can be stored at minus-70 degrees Celsius (minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit) — plus or minus 10 degrees Celsius — for six months. Needless to say, that is a super tough temperature requirement that few hospitals or pharmacies can offer. Essentially, you would need to purchase an ultra-cold freezer, each of which can cost as much as $20,000 and hold more than 100,000 doses. So Pfizer has built a thermal shipper that can be stored at room temperature and keep vaccines ultra-cold for as long as 10 days. You can only open the shipper at most twice a day. After 10 days, you would need to add dry ice to those shippers every five days. Once you take a vaccine out of the shipper and put it into a regular refrigerator, you would have to use it within five days.
If you mentally go through how tough it is to distribute Pfizer's vaccine, you will greatly appreciate the other two vaccine candidates. The Moderna vaccine can be stored between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius (36 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit) for 30 days. That is what a regular refrigerator can offer. It can be stored for as long as six months at minus-20 degrees Celsius (minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit) in a home or medical freezer. It can also be stored at room temperature for 12 hours.
And AstraZeneca’s vaccine is yet another upgrade. Basically, it requires chilled, not cold, storage. It can be stored between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius (36 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit) for six months. This is really a very, very basic requirement. For this reason, many consider AstraZeneca’s vaccine to be the one that’s going to be widely distributed around the world.