What it will take to move and store millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine

TVO.org speaks with an expert on cold-chain logistics about freezers, dry ice — and why we may need to call in the military
By Matt Gurney - Published on Nov 23, 2020
COVID-19 vaccines require extremely cold temperatures during transport and storage to remain viable. (iStock/undefined undefined)

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There has recently been some promising COVID-19 vaccine news: a couple of candidates could become available by the end of this year. But there's a catch. The vaccines require extremely cold temperatures during transport and storage to remain viable. So dealing with them will involve what is known as "cold-chain logistics" — the movement and warehousing of goods that must be kept at low, sometimes ultra-low, temperatures. TVO.org spoke with Paul Greco, president of 360 Medical, a cold-chain-logistics manufacturer, distributor, and retailer based in Schomberg, about freezers, organizational challenges, and why he thinks the military should lend a hand.

Matt Gurney: Everyone's familiar with a fridge and freezer. We've all got them whirring away in our homes. But what you guys do is specialized, and now there's a whole hell of a lot riding on our ability to pull off this huge logistical operation that all hinges on ultra-cold storage and transport. Let's talk about the differences in the devices — according to the manual, my freezer can go down to about -17 C at the coldest setting, which I don't keep it at. What lets you guys go much colder?

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Paul Greco: It's mostly the refrigerant. That's the biggest thing. Many manufacturers use a proprietary blend of refrigerants that their chemists and engineers have developed in order to reach ultra-low temperatures. In a smaller unit, some of the components are a bit different, but the main difference is the refrigerants that are used, plus the capacity of the compressors and the condensers and the cooling coils. But it really is very similar to your domestic freezers. Once you get into larger units, things change a little bit. Essentially, it's two cooling systems. So there's one cooling system that does the primary "pull down" to roughly -40 C. And then there's a secondary cooling system that cools down that system. This is how we're able to achieve -70 C, -80 C in these larger units.

Gurney: Most of the information I could find about your company in particular and about the industry in general focused on medical applications — I mean, you guys are 360 Medical, right? But what other industrial or commercial applications need that kind of cooling capacity?

Greco: We work a lot with the military. Their weapons and equipment need to stand up to pretty extreme conditions, for Arctic warfare and the like. So they need to test metals, plastics — everything.

Gurney: You'd look real cute if you tried to fire a missile from a fighter jet at 50,000 feet and it shattered from the cold.

Greco: Exactly. There aren't a lot of applications that need ultra-cold temperatures, but the military is definitely one. There are also a lot of laboratory applications that aren't pharmaceutical storage but still need ultra-low temperatures. Pathology is one. Hospitals and research labs will use them. At Sunnybrook Hospital, in Toronto, they have a research wing that's just full of ultra-low freezers.

Gurney: What kind of capacity for ultra-low cooling exists already? I honestly don't know if these things are so specialized that there are, like, 50 in the whole country or if they're ubiquitous.

Greco: That's a good question. Hospitals have them; laboratories have them. Universities would have them. There are thousands of them in Canada — maybe tens of thousands. So there are a lot of them in use. They aren't rare. But the problem is, these are expensive units. A smaller one might be $8,500. A larger unit is going to be $20,000.

Gurney: So people don't order these things on a whim and just have idle capacity.

Greco: Exactly. There are thousands of units, but there’s almost no reserve. People actually rent out access to ultra-low freezers. If you're a researcher doing some experiments or a small clinical trial, you don't buy your own — you just rent a bit of shelf space. The capacity we have in Canada is spoken for. It's all being used.

Gurney: So we need to build up the capacity fast. Can we?

Greco: We can. There's production capacity. China and Poland are major manufacturing centres; we get ours from China. I can't speak for all the companies in our sector, but we have great partnerships, and we believe that we will have enough capacity in terms of production. Some of these parts are specialized, but all the manufacturers have known for months that there was going to be a global roll-out of vaccines, so they are ready. Parts are being stockpiled. The supply chains are in good shape to build these. There have been some supply problems with normal refrigerators, but the ultra-cool units seem to be okay. The actual challenge is going to be the logistics of delivering the units.

Gurney: Right. We haven't recovered from the disruption of the first wave. We are moving tons of stuff, urgently, all over the world, including and especially PPE. This comes up in a lot of my interviews. Global supply chains are still in really weird shape.

Greco: Exactly. So, normally, we could order a unit and get it from China in about 30 days. Right now, it’s about double — around 60 days. There is no shipping capacity in Asia right now. None. Literally zero. We have port delays in China; we have port delays in Canada. The ports are congested with containers. Air transport is possible but extremely expensive.

Gurney: This is something that would have sounded crazy a year ago, but should we call in the military?

Greco: I know what you mean. It feels like a movie. But we're already talking about that. In the industry and in conversations with government, we are thinking we might need to get the military involved.

Gurney: Let me ask you a dumb question. How big are these things? Like, if we do end up needing to use the navy for sealift or even just air-force cargo planes — tell me what these units are like. How many can you squeeze onto a C-17?

Greco: These aren't massive machines. Our largest units, and this would be considered a big ultra-cool freezer, are about 30 cubic feet. A lot of the domestic freezers you'd buy for your house are maybe 18 cubic feet, right? So our units aren't even double the size. They weigh a few hundred pounds. We could fly these things, for sure. If we got help from the military, they could do this in a matter of days. The vaccine won't be available for a few months yet, so we might be able to get the freezers here in Canada before the vaccines are available. But if we get to the point where vaccine is available but the freezers are stuck in a port overseas — I mean, lives are in danger. We all want to get this over with and get back to normal. In that situation, using the military is an avenue we should explore and be open to.

Gurney: Okay, let's assume that we get them over here. We use warships or air-force cargo planes or even just normal commercial shipping. They're here. Where do we put them? Do you guys need anything special?

Greco: Not really. The thing is power.

Gurney: Yeah, I was going to ask. Can I just plug these things into a power bar?

Greco: The compressors we use are more powerful than on a domestic fridge or freezer and use more power. About six times more power. So a small domestic unit — say, a few cubic feet. Something you'd put canned drinks in. That would draw about 50 watts of power at 120 volts. You just plug that into an outlet or a power bar, yeah. An ultra-cool unit of the same size will pull about 300 watts, but at 220 volts. That's a bigger plug.

Gurney: That's like what you plug your dryer or your oven into.

Greco: Exactly. Yes. So all houses have 220-volt outlets, but probably only one or two. The bigger units need a lot more amps. They'll pull about 1,300 watts or so at 220 volts.

Gurney: So like running a heater. People don't realize how much electricity those use. That's why the clothes dryers have big plugs. They need a lot of electricity to operate the heating coils.

Greco: Right. So our large units pull a lot of power compared to a domestic freezer, but this isn't totally beyond normal use. Any facility with modern electrical service will be able to operate these units if they have 220-volt plugs available.

Gurney: But with that kind of amperage draw, you can't plug 100 of these into any random facility we dragoon into service.

Greco: No, absolutely not. You'd need a purpose-built facility for that many — or at least a properly prepared power supply.

Gurney: Other than 220-volt outlets with a lot of amps to spare, anything else you guys need?

Greco: Nope. Just power.

Gurney: So you could put these things into hockey rinks or community centres or church basements if the power were available.

Greco: Absolutely.

Gurney: Everything we've talked about is about storage. But what about transportation? Where's this stuff coming from?

Greco: It will depend on the producer, obviously. Pfizer, I think, is Michigan. Moderna, I believe, will be in Europe.

Gurney: Michigan is easier than Europe, but I guess it's the same challenge. How do we keep something ultra-cool during shipment?

Greco: Dry ice! That's almost the right temperature. We can produce that here in Toronto no problem. Roto-moulded foam coolers and dry ice will keep this stuff at the right temperature.

Gurney: I can buy a roto-moulded cooler at Canadian Tire or Home Depot. I keep my beer in one when I'm at the dock.

Greco: Right. These things are very good: Dense foam. High build-quality. You can jump on them and they won't break, and they'll hold a stable temperature for days. That would handle local distribution in cities. Long-range transportation, I don't know. It's more complicated. Reefer [refrigerated] truck trailers or rail cars for fruits, vegetables, and frozen food don't normally get this cold. It's possible, but most truck or train units for meat and produce only need to be at standard fridge or freezer temperatures. We could use trailers with external power supplies. Instead of turning the entire trailer into a freezer, just rig up a bunch of freezers inside a trailer with an external generator and internal power supply. One thing we could also do is put freezers with an external power supply inside a reefer trailer: if we can get the reefer down to -20 C inside, then the freezers would only need to go down another 60 degrees.

Gurney: I'm not even going to try to do the math on BTUs. [laughs] I'm a journalist to avoid math. But, sure, the colder the environment the freezers are in, the less work they have to do to get even colder. Makes sense. I know this isn't what you do, but you know a lot about this — more than I do. So walk me through, in very general terms, what distribution is going to look like.

Greco: Sure. You have to select the priorities for vaccination: high-risk populations and health-care workers, for example. You put large ultra-cool freezers in central locations. A city like Toronto, you have multiple locations. Barrie or Waterloo, smaller cities, you have maybe one. You put the large units there. And then you have smaller units at local sites where the vaccine will actually be administered. So when the vaccine is available, you store it at the big hubs and distribute it to the smaller ones. The vaccines will be stable briefly at normal refrigerator temperatures — a few days, at least. You don't want to waste vaccine, so you want to make sure that you can use what you thaw before it spoils. In the cities, this isn't going to be a problem.

Gurney: Where do you actually do this? Hospitals or medical clinics?

Greco: I don't think so. The system is already strained. I think we want to keep this away from the health-care system and public health. We probably should use the army. I think field hospitals are the way to go. Set up tents or take over facilities and administer the vaccine there. We've got the military. They could easily do something like this. It's a great resource. We should use it.

Gurney: In terms of operating the units: Are they complicated? I mean, beyond not grabbing something metallic that's chilled down to -80 C with your bare hands.

Greco: No, no. Very user-friendly. They aren't much different from your freezer at home. Repairs are harder because these are specialized components. But operation is not complicated. And if a unit fails, just swap it out with another one and send the broken one back for repairs.

Gurney: So every 19-year-old rifleman in the army can do this.

Greco: For sure. But that's in the cities, like I said. Any city or large town, no problem. But what about, say, the Far North or remote Indigenous communities or Churchill, Manitoba? You won't have one of these freezers within hundreds of kilometres. Or thousands. We will need a very solid plan for the smaller and more remote communities: first you send a freezer and get it connected to electricity; then you send in the vaccine for storage and local distribution. And that might be over a huge geographic area. We'll need a good plan for this.

Gurney: We talked earlier about capacity. You said we had thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of these units in the country. But no excess capacity in them. How many of these units do we need to build right now?

Greco: We don't know. Our understanding is that the vaccines are very small volume. We don't know that for sure yet, but that's our understanding. So with a 30-cubic-feet unit, maybe we can fit 10,000 doses? Maybe 20,000? So just start doing the math. How much vaccine are we getting? How quickly? How quickly will we be distributing it, freeing up space in the ultra-cool freezers for more shipments? Ontario is apparently set to get 2.4 million doses in the next few months. If that's 10,000 doses in a large unit, do the math.

Gurney: You'd store it all with 240 large freezers. Half that if they can hold 20,000 each.

Greco: Exactly. And it won't all arrive at once. So you won't actually be storing 2.4 million doses. This is logistics. It's complicated. But I think we could do the entire country with hundreds of units. Maybe low thousands.

Gurney: I want to ask you what might sound like a weird question. But this is going to be a few months of chaos and hell for you guys, and then, all of a sudden, a year from now, we've all had our jabs and we're dancing at the nightclubs without a care in the world, and there's thousands of ultra-cool freezers sitting around that no one needs anymore.

Greco: [laughs] Exactly! We've already thought about that. We might not see any major sales for three or four years after the next few months. We are going to see a huge flood of highly discounted slightly used units hit the market all at the same time. Even if we need to have annual boosters, we'll only need enough freezers to do one-twelfth of the population every month after we've all had the first shots. There's going to be huge excess capacity.

Gurney: That's interesting, though. That gives us an opportunity. What new applications will access to these things open up?

Greco: Schools will grab them. Laboratories. Hospitals will add to their inventory. But, honestly? A ton of these are going to end up in storage somewhere.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.


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