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Is Dry Ice the right choice for the transportation of the COVID-19 vaccine?

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The two companies whose vaccines show an efficacy beyond 90% and are to be the first to rollout when their use is authorised by governments in different nations across the world, are developed by Pfizer and Moderna with specific temperature requirements of -70 degrees and -20 degree Celcius each. 

An unbroken cold chain has to be maintained from the time the vaccine comes off the production line right to when it is thawed to be administered. If the cold chain fails, the vaccine can degrade and even become contaminated with bacteria. 

Thus, the specific temperature requirements of the vaccine which will be transported across the world by using a combination of road and air transport call for special attention from airlines and safety regulators as it gives only two main ways to maintain that temperature: dry ice and temperature-controlled refrigeration units. 

While airlines, hospitals, pharmacies, logistics service providers, and governments of different nations are gearing up to develop or acquire ultra-low temperature freezers, they have come to understand the huge cost and time required for them. Also, the availability of apt refrigeration in small communities and economically backward nations remains slim.  

While demand for both temperature-controlled refrigeration and dry ice has been soaring high around the world, it has been observed that frozen CO2 or Dry Ice is given more importance as it is an inexpensive way to maintain low temperatures and can be used by logistics providers throughout the supply chain. 

Anticipating the use and requirement of hundreds of thousands of pounds of frozen carbon dioxide, or dry ice manufacturers of dry ice are planning to boost their productions ahead of the expected approvals from the government. But, is dry ice the right choice for the distribution of the vaccine?

The Icy Challenge of COVID-19 Vaccine distribution 

Although dry ice is inexpensive and can maintain low temperatures efficiently up to minus 78.5 degrees Celcius, it is considered a hazardous material in planes. 

Transporting large quantities of dry ice, which can emit carbon dioxide, on airplanes will require extra precautions and attention to ensure they reach the public without any waste or bottlenecks in the supply chain. 

Halit Tuncer, Cargo Director- South Asia, Turkish Airlines talks about how dry-ice can be an appropriate choice for the air freight industry, given the massive volume that the vaccine distribution will entail.

“Air freight industry will welcome any helping hand including dry-ice.
As the vaccine volume will be huge, dry-ice is a good choice rather than complicated and expensive process with limited capacity active solutions can provide. We are hoping to be able to safely increase dry-ice acceptance limitations and carry more vaccine per flight.”

~Halit Tuncer, Cargo Director- South Asia, Turkish Airlines

Packaging dry ice in a container that does not allow the adequate release of the gas could cause the container to explode from the built-up levels of pressure, a process known as sublimation. Dry ice can also deprive a confined space of oxygen, making it difficult to breathe. However, under normal flight ventilation conditions, the risk of suffocation or an explosion from dry ice is minimal. 

Given the high risk, the air carriers and airport authorities along with other stakeholders of the supply chain handling the vaccine across the world will be required to adhere to specific guidelines for safely transporting large quantities of dry ice in air cargo. Also, special training for staff at the administration site will be required. As they will have to check the temperature and make sure that the thermal box is not being opened more than a few times a day, not more than a few minutes at a time, and to fill it with new dry ice at the right times.   

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