Courtesy Wall Street Journal, December 9, 2020
COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout in the U.K. Tests Global Supply Network

The COVID-19 vaccines that British citizens began receiving on December 9 had been sitting only days earlier in ultracold freezers across the English Channel.

When the British government last Wednesday provisionally authorized the vaccine’s use, it set in motion a logistical test that will define the next stage of how the world tackles the coronavirus pandemic: the delivery of the vaccines.

Workers at the Pfizer Inc. plant in Puurs, Belgium, loaded thousands of vials of the liquid, stored at nearly 100 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, into custom-made thermally protected shipping containers and packed with dry ice. Loaded onto anonymous trucks, they crossed 125 miles to the French coast and sped by train under the English Channel. By Thursday evening, three trucks were heading across the U.K. and a fourth was crossing the Irish Sea.

For vaccines to halt then reverse the pandemic, similar drills must occur thousands of times over, all around the world, in places far less organized than Northern Europe. Countries and logistics companies are scrambling to prepare for the unprecedented challenge of shipping millions—eventually billions—of doses at carefully controlled temperatures. Some countries, particularly poor ones with weak infrastructure and governance in places like Africa, could see big delays. Britain itself faces a looming threat from Brexit, which risks causing long delays at its borders.

Pfizer’s plant in Belgium began producing vaccine doses months ago and storing them in ultracold freezers on site. The fragile vaccine needs to be stored at around -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit) to maintain its integrity, which makes transportation a huge challenge.

The vaccine doses were packed into custom-designed “thermal shippers,” which are each about the size of two carry-on suitcases and designed to hold nearly 5,000 doses at close to -70C for up to 30 days as long as fresh dry ice is added. Small glass vials that contain five doses each are stored in trays that are stacked like pizza boxes inside the shipper and covered with dry ice pellets.

Each shipper contains a device about the size of a cellphone that functions as a thermal sensor and GPS monitor, and can even tell if the box is opened. It feeds information to a Pfizer control center, allowing the company to make sure the shipment is sticking to its planned route and maintaining its required temperature. An alert is triggered if the dri

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