Fast-Track Vaccines

As ultra-cold Pfizer vaccines ship out, dry ice supplies tighten in Northeast

Scott Tong Dec 21, 2020
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A worker pours dry ice into boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as they are prepared to be shipped in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on Dec. 13, 2020. Morry Gash/AFP via Getty Images
Fast-Track Vaccines

As ultra-cold Pfizer vaccines ship out, dry ice supplies tighten in Northeast

Scott Tong Dec 21, 2020
Heard on:
A worker pours dry ice into boxes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as they are prepared to be shipped in Kalamazoo, Michigan, on Dec. 13, 2020. Morry Gash/AFP via Getty Images
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Supplies of dry ice, critical to the transport of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, which has to be kept at a minimum of -76 Fahrenheit, are showing signs of tightening in the New England region, a key industry analyst said.

“I’m told it’s very tight,” Sam Rushing, industry consultant at Advanced Cryogenics Limited, said. “Businesses say they are receiving product and it’s gone in a matter of hours instead of a day or two.”

In Cambridge, Massachusetts, Acme Ice is fielding orders like never before from hospitals preparing to vaccinate the public, Boston 25 News reported this week. But it’s not clear vaccine delivery demand is causing the scarcity in the Northeast, Rushing said.

Dry ice is made from carbon dioxide, normally something society doesn’t want because it warms the planet. But in this case, bring on the CO2.

One of the main sources for CO2 is the industrial process of making ethanol, which goes into gasoline (CO2 is a by-product). Since Americans are driving less, there’s less raw material for dry ice.

“There is a potential for price increases,” Rushing said. “With less product available, prices tend to go up.”

Some of the largest companies in the vaccine supply chain said dry ice supplies are adequate. Pfizer, the manufacturer of the first vaccine to receive FDA approval, makes its own dry ice to put into the packing boxes, Rushing said.

Then, UPS and FedEx transport the boxes. “There is plenty of dry ice out there,” Richard Smith, regional president of FedEx, told a Senate subcommittee last week. UPS has invested in dry ice manufacturing capacity, Wes Wheeler, president of global health care for UPS, said at the hearing.

When boxes arrive at hospitals, more precious dry ice is scheduled to arrive, courtesy of the government, Claire Hannan, executive director of the Association of Immunization Managers, said.

“Dry ice has to be replenished in order to hold the cold in the shipping box for five days,” Hannan said. “And then of course you get five days in the refrigerator. So that first 10 days is committed to and spoken for by the federal government.”

But after that, the question is whether there’s enough dry ice to store and transport vaccine to neighborhoods and remote places.

It’s a difficult market to read, because it’s fragmented in a couple ways.

“One is how many different producers there are,” Glenn Richey, business professor at Auburn University, said. “And also all of the different hospitals, all of the different pharmacies. So it’s really difficult to put a finger on what the supply will be and what the demand will be.”

Dry ice makers can invest money to produce more. But that’s risky.

“What happens after this demand for dry ice goes down?” Richey said. “Have you invested significantly in a lot of overhead cost and new equipment? Then the demand goes back down and there’s a glut.”

Too much product would sink prices and profits.

Dry ice has been in short supply in the past, most recently this spring.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Millions of Americans are unemployed, but businesses say they are having trouble hiring. Why?

This economic crisis is unusual compared to traditional recessions, according to Daniel Zhao, senior economist with Glassdoor. “Many workers are still sitting out of the labor force because of health concerns or child care needs, and that makes it tough to find workers regardless of what you’re doing with wages or benefits,” Zhao said. “An extra dollar an hour isn’t going to make a cashier with preexisting conditions feel that it’s safe to return to work.” This can be seen in the restaurant industry: Some workers have quit or are reluctant to apply because of COVID-19 concerns, low pay, meager benefits and the stress that comes with a fast-paced, demanding job. Restaurants have been willing to offer signing bonuses and temporary wage increases. One McDonald’s is even paying people $50 just to interview.

Could waiving patents increase the global supply of COVID-19 vaccines?

India and South Africa have introduced a proposal to temporarily suspend patents on COVID-19 vaccines. Backers of the plan say it would increase the supply of vaccines around the world by allowing more countries to produce them. Skeptics say it’s not that simple. There’s now enough supply in the U.S that any adult who wants a shot should be able to get one soon. That reality is years away for most other countries. More than 100 countries have backed the proposal to temporarily waive COVID-19 vaccine patents. The U.S isn’t one of them, but the White House has said it’s considering the idea.

Can businesses deny you entry if you don’t have a vaccine passport?

As more Americans get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the economy continues reopening, some businesses are requiring proof of vaccination to enter their premises. The concept of a vaccine passport has raised ethical questions about data privacy and potential discrimination against the unvaccinated. However, legal experts say businesses have the right to deny entrance to those who can’t show proof.

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