Pfizer’s new vaccine underlines the importance of packaging

Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine

Pfizer is briefing the press aggressively about its prospective COVID-19 vaccine. A heavily publicised open letter from the company’s CEO strongly implied that it is expected to be shipping the vaccine in the last week of November. Whether this will happen or not is unclear, however, the company has also been talking about its vaccine dedicated logistics systems, specifically in an article in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday (October 22) where Pfizer outlined its production and logistics solutions on which it claims to have spent $2bn, although this number includes product development costs as well.

One of the issues that jumps out of Pfizer’s preparations is the importance of packaging. The mRNA vaccine that Pfizer and its development partner BioNTech have developed needs to be stored at -70°C (minus 70 degrees celsius). This might seem to demand complex handling systems, however, Pfizer has been able to provide flexible packaging systems through the use of simple packaging boxes commonly used throughout the pharma sector. The ‘cool boxes’ are 15.7in sq (39.8cm sq) and insulated by a dry-ice ‘pod’ or liner inserted around five trays of vaccine doses. Each tray, which is 9.1in sq (23.1cm sq), carries 1,000 doses. These boxes are then made up into a pallet and placed into an insulated pallet-shipper. Obviously, each consignment can carry a large number of doses. Pfizer stated that the boxes enable the vaccines to be kept at the correct temperature for 10 days. 

Pfizer has two main distribution centres for the vaccine, one in Kalamazoo in the US and the other in Puurs in Belgium. These hold the inventory from the production facilities and deliver consignments to airports, presumably for intercontinental movement. It is unclear how reliant Pfizer will be on airfreight, bearing in mind the flexibility that temperature-controlled road freight can offer.

The article in the Wall Street Journal said that the airfreight would be handled by “FedEx Corp., United Parcel Service Inc and DHL International GmbH to fly the vaccines as close as possible to the vaccination centres… the air carriers are also in line to handle the next leg of the journey, trucking the doses to sites close to where they will be administered”. Delivery time is estimated to be three days and Pfizer expects to use space on around 20 flights a day for both logistics hubs.

It is not known when or if a vaccine will be issued. Pfizer has yet to finish its phase 3 trials and a positive result is not certain. However, if a vaccine is approved it seems unlikely that the logistics will be a significant obstacle to its rapid deployment for all but the most remote regions.

Source: Transport Intelligence, October 22, 2020

Author: Thomas Cullen

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