Airlines rally cold-chain supplies to ship Pfizer, Moderna's frigid COVID-19 shots

Airplane wing
As air cargo carriers lock down cold chain facilities and containers, insulation specialists are also boosting capacity for a global shot rollout. (Chaiwiwat Duangjinda/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

Positive data on Pfizer and Moderna's mRNA vaccine candidates have been tempered in recent weeks by concerns over shipping hurdles for the shots, both of which require stringent temperature control to remain stable. Now, as the monumental task of distributing a COVID-19 vaccine looms, airlines are rapidly working to test their shipping acumen and lock down supplies of ultra-cold storage containers, Reuters reports

Korean Air, for instance, has inked contracts with five temperature-controlled container manufacturers, it told the news service, and while it now says it has sufficient container capacity, it continues to pursue additional deals with storage specialists. 

Air France, meanwhile, is plotting to test its shipping capabilities with an unnamed drugmaker through the use of ersatz vaccines—shipped at ultra-cold temperatures—potentially through Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. The trial run will see Air France use dry ice-cooled boxes, which can store upward of 5,000 shot doses each, Air France-KLM special cargo manager Béatrice Delpuech told Reuters. The cargo carrier is also eyeing larger ultra-cold containers from the Germany-based insulation specialist va-Q-tec for future shipments. 

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Others are moving away from dry ice altogether. Aside from potential temperature tracking hurdles, airplanes can only carry so much of the material—up to one ton in refrigerated, insulated containers in wide-body planes, Reuters said, citing a DHL white paper on vaccine transport. Over time, dry ice turns to gas, displacing oxygen in the cabin, which limits the number of shipments airplanes can move at a time. 

RELATED: Pfizer goes solo on U.S. shot distribution, opting out of government channels

DHL, for its part, is tapping liquid nitrogen-cooled capsules from Cryoport, able to keep products at temperatures as cool as -150 degrees Celsius (-238 degrees Fahrenheit) for up to 10 days, Patricia Cole, DHL Global Forwarding's global head of temperature management solutions, told the news service. 

Elsewhere, cold-storage specialists are boosting efforts to ensure they have enough product to meet demand when a shot rollout begins in earnest. Sweden's Envirotainer in October announced it was increasing U.S. capacity for its network of so-called "active temperature-controlled" RAP e2 units—which use electric motors to maintain frigid temps—by 57%, adding new stations in New York, Miami, Philadelphia and Seattle to help with shipping efforts. 

And va-Q-tec in September opened two new temperature-controlled service stations in Kansas and Glasgow, Scotland. On Wednesday, the company announced it had concluded a comprehensive agreement with one of "the largest pharmaceutical manufacturers" for international shot distribution. Subject to approval, va-Q-tec aims to start shipping the product in the first quarter of 2021, which will see the company leverage several thousand high-performance transport containers. Va-Q-tec plans to further expand its container fleet over the next several months as more shot rollouts approach, the company said in a release. 

RELATED: Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine looks impressive, but Sanofi, J&J and Novavax shots eye a logistics edge

Much of the air cargo industry's cold chain concerns stem from Pfizer's vaccine hopeful, which must be kept at -94 degrees Fahrenheit. The drugmaker has elected to bypass the U.S.' own chosen distributor, McKesson, and will work with DHL, Fedex and United Parcel Service to undertake the monumental task stateside. What's more, the company has developed GPS-tracked, temperature-controlled containers to keep an eye on potential temperature deviations in real time. 

Mikael Dolsten, Pfizer's chief scientific officer, recently told Business Insider that the pharma giant is also working on a powder formulation of its vaccine, which could roll out in 2021, with the aim to eliminate some of the shipping hurdles that have dogged discussions of its shot hopeful. 

Meanwhile, other vaccine makers have entered something of a heated cold-chain competition: Moderna on Monday revealed its shot can be stored at 36 degrees to 46 degrees Fahrenheit and at room temp for up to 12 hours.

German mRNA specialist CureVac has also touted the cold-chain advantages of its shot, which is stable for up to three months at standard refrigerator temps and can be kept for up to 24 hours at room temperature. Plus, Johnson & Johnson recently said that its vaccine can last up to two years at -4 degrees Farenheit and remains stable at a range of about 35.6 degrees to 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit for upward of three months. 

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