These containers used to ship fresh tuna. Now they’ll deliver Covid-19 vaccines


One company is using its experience with tuna as a guide.

Thermo King — which revolutionized the transportation of food through advances in temperature-controlled shipping before World War II — is working with pharmaceutical companies, governments and logistics firms to ensure vaccines are preserved as they travel to clinics and hospitals. To make this happen, they’ve reworked containers typically used to transport fresh tuna to Japan, which requires similar frigid conditions.

“We took that product and we amended it,” Francesco Incalza, president Thermo King Europe, Middle East and Africa, told CNN Business.

Tuna must be stored at -60 degrees Celsius, or -76 degrees Fahrenheit, to maintain its quality and deep red hue when it reaches supermarkets and restaurants, Incalza said. The coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer (PFE) and BioNTech has to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius, or -94 degrees Fahrenheit, while in transit.
So Thermo King, which is part of Ireland-based Trane Technologies, made some tweaks, adding additional insulation and adjusting the refrigeration system so it could get even colder. Now, each 20-foot-long container can carry 300,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine — the first to be approved for use by Western countries following rigorous testing — by land or sea. Some have already been sold and are making their way around the globe.

Incalza said this kind of innovation would normally take years to develop.

Thermo King's newly-developed freezers in transit to a customer in Europe this year.

Calling all freezers

Pharmaceutical products generally need to be kept at a cool 2 to 8 degrees Celsius, or roughly 36 to 46 degrees Fahrenheit, during transport. But Pfizer’s vaccine is different.

It’s the first time a vaccine has been approved that uses mRNA technology, which involves transmitting instructions for the body to begin producing part of the coronavirus. That, in turn, triggers an immune response. The US Food and Drug Administration authorized the Pfizer vaccine for emergency use on Friday. The United Kingdom began giving citizens the vaccine on Tuesday, while Canada greenlit its use on Wednesday.
Another vaccine produced by Moderna (MRNA), which also uses mRNA technology, could also be approved by governments in the coming weeks. It can be kept at -20 degrees Celsius, or about -4 degrees Fahrenheit.

Supply chain experts say that keeping mRNA vaccines sufficiently cold is one of the chief issues in distributing vaccines around the world and bringing an end to the pandemic. But they think it’s possible, given the sophistication of the so-called “cold chain,” which has for decades shepherded food and drugs around the world at specific temperatures.

“It needs to be very carefully planned and executed,” said Burak Kazaz, a professor of supply chain management at Syracuse University. “That’s not to say it cannot be done, but we have to be very careful about it.”

The Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine could be approved for emergency use in the United States shortly.

The technology doesn’t come cheap. Imperial College in London notes much of the expense of vaccination programs comes from cold chain requirements, which can account for up to 80% of overall costs.

But the framework for moving sensitive, temperature-controlled goods around the world is there, according to Tom Jackson, author of the book “Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World and Might Do So Again.”

“If we get the temperatures right, we can take anything anywhere and store it for as long as we want,” Jackson said.

That’s in part thanks to Thermo King founders Frederick McKinley Jones and Joseph Numero, according to Jackson. In his book, he writes that Jones developed a more effective refrigerated unit that could be carried by a truck after a golf buddy complained to Numero, his business partner, about a spoiled shipment of chickens during a round in 1938.

According to the US Department of Transportation, the company grew “exponentially” during World War II, when its technology was used to help preserve blood, medicine and food.

The two men were posthumously awarded the National Medal of Technology by President George H.W. Bush in 1991. Jones was the first Black person to receive the honor.

From tuna to vaccines

A generation later, Thermo King has a role to play in handling another crisis.

In October, Trane Technologies President David Regnery told analysts that the company had developed a mobile freezer with 60 times the capacity of what was previously on the market for pharmaceuticals. He was referring to the retrofitted tuna unit.

The new product, which had been developed in consultation with drugmakers, was a “big opportunity for Thermo King,” he said.

Trane Technologies, which also sells heating and cooling systems for buildings and homes, will provide an update to investors on Monday. Shares, which trade in New York, are up 35% this year.

The world's now scrambling for dry ice. It's just one headache in getting coronavirus vaccines where they need to go

Anticipating a spike in demand, Thermo King began ramping up production of its new units at a facility in China a few months ago, according to Incalza. He sees the initial distribution of shots at the end of this year as part of a crucial trial run ahead of a massive distribution mandate in 2021.

“When it comes up to spring, we are talking about billions and billions of doses to be distributed,” he said.

The new units could also prove useful well beyond the pandemic, Incalza noted, given the rise of gene therapies and other biopharmaceuticals. Those will require movement and storage in extremely cold temperatures, too.

“More and more products will need to be transported at these ultra-low temperatures, so it is opening a new market for this kind of equipment,” he said.

There are big challenges, however — including how to deliver vaccines to less developed regions that lack the same degree of refrigeration infrastructure. Incalza said that in places like this, Thermo King hopes to deploy smaller “cold cubes” that can reach -30 degrees Celsius, or -22 degrees Fahrenheit, for the Moderna vaccine and other candidates, since they’d be easier to carry over final distances.

Security is also a concern. Earlier this month, IBM (IBM) said it found that hackers had been targeting key actors in cold chain, and that the effort had “the hallmarks of a state-sponsored attack.” Companies that make up the cold chain say their products are secure and don’t view hacks as a major threat.

While the distribution of vaccines will be a daunting task, Michael Berg, CEO of Envirotainer — a Swedish company that specializes in temperature-controlled air transport of pharmaceuticals — thinks the cold chain industry is up to it.

“It’s going to require a lot of planning [and] it’s going to require everybody to bump up their fleet capacity,” Berg said. “But all this is happening now.”