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How to Ship a Vaccine at –80°C, and Other Obstacles in the Covid Fight

Many things will have to work out to end the coronavirus pandemic. Drug companies will have to develop a safe and effective vaccine. Billions of people will have to consent to vaccination.

But there are more prosaic challenges, too. Among them: Companies may have to transport tiny glass vials thousands of miles while keeping them as cold as the South Pole in the depths of winter.

A number of the leading Covid-19 vaccines under development will need to be kept at temperatures as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius (minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit) from the moment they are bottled to the time they are ready to be injected into patients’ arms.

That will not be easy. Vaccines may be manufactured on one continent and shipped to another. They will go from logistics hub to logistics hub before ending up at the hospitals and other facilities that will administer them.

While no vaccine has yet been approved by health officials in the United States, preparations for a mass-vaccination campaign are gearing up. The U.S. military and a federal contractor are expected to play a role in coordinating the distribution. But a hodgepodge of companies are scrambling to figure out how to keep hundreds of millions of doses of a vaccine very, very cold.

Planes, trucks and warehouses will need to be outfitted with freezers. Glass vials will need to withstand icy climes. Someone will need to make a lot more dry ice.

“We’re only now beginning to understand the complexities of the delivery side of all of this,” said J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research firm. “And there’s no getting around it. These have stark temperature demands that will constrain access and delivery.”

Credit…Hans Pennink/Associated Press

President Trump on Friday asserted that hundreds of millions of doses of an unidentified vaccine will be available to all Americans by April. That timeline is more ambitious than what his own advisers have described. Dr. Robert R. Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told a Senate committee on Wednesday that a vaccine would not be widely available until the middle of next year.

Of the three vaccines that have advanced to Phase 3 trials, two — one made by Moderna and the National Institutes of Health, the other by Pfizer and BioNTech — need to be kept in a near constant deep freeze. (They are made with genetic materials that fall apart when they thaw.) Another leading vaccine candidate, being developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University, must be kept cool but not frozen.

McKesson, a major drug distributor, won a major federal contract last month to help distribute a coronavirus vaccine. Much of the work, however, will fall to companies outside the medical and drug industries. The major U.S. logistics companies, including UPS and FedEx, already have networks of freezers that they use to ship perishable food and medical supplies. The companies have experience shipping vaccines for other illnesses, including the seasonal flu.

But the Covid-19 vaccination effort is likely to dwarf all previous campaigns.

UPS said it was constructing a so-called freezer farm in Louisville, Ky., the company’s largest hub, where it can store millions of doses at subzero temperatures.

Creating an entire warehouse that could maintain that deep freeze would have been too complex and costly. So instead, rows of upright industrial Stirling Ultracold freezers, each capable of holding 48,000 vials, are being arranged inside a warehouse. There are 70 freezers so far, but the warehouse could fit a few hundred. A similar UPS center is in the works in the Netherlands.

“I haven’t seen anything like this before,” said Wes Wheeler, UPS’s head of health care. “Nothing has been quite this global in scale.”



At FedEx, the vaccine preparations are being led by Richard W. Smith, the son of the company’s founder, Fred W. Smith. The younger Mr. Smith, who runs the company’s airline operations in the Americas, was in charge of the life sciences business for FedEx’s airline operations in 2009, during the H1N1 pandemic. At the time, the U.S. government asked FedEx to prepare to help transport vaccines, Mr. Smith said, and the company doubled its number of freezers around the globe.

“Fortunately, H1N1 did not rise to the level of the pandemic we thought it could be,” he said. “But that allowed us to really beef up our cold-chain infrastructure.”

In the years after that scare, FedEx expanded its supply of freezers and worked with the Federal Aviation Administration to win approval for its planes to carry more dry ice. (When dry ice melts, it emits carbon dioxide, making the air on planes potentially unsafe for pilots and crew.)

Now FedEx is adding freezers that can maintain temperatures as low as minus 80 Celsius in cities including Memphis, Indianapolis and Paris. It is installing additional refrigerated trailers in Oakland, Calif., Dallas and Los Angeles, which could be used for vaccines that need to be served chilled, not frozen.

“The demand for this is huge,” Mr. Smith said. “We know it’s going to be a very substantial market.” Analysts at Citi agreed, saying the business of transporting vaccines is likely to be profitable in a recent note suggesting that FedEx stock was a good investment.

As if the challenge weren’t sufficiently daunting, the world is facing a looming shortage of dry ice — an unexpected side effect of the pandemic.

Dry ice, the stuff that exudes chilly smoke and enthralls school-age scientists, is made from carbon dioxide, which is most commonly created as a byproduct during the production of ethanol.

But ethanol production ebbs and flows based on the demand for gasoline. This spring, as stay-at-home orders went into effect, people began driving less. As a result, ethanol production slumped, and so did the supply of carbon dioxide.

In April, Richard Gottwald, chief executive of the Compressed Gas Association, sent a letter to Vice President Mike Pence warning of “a significant risk of a shortage in carbon dioxide.”

Five months later, “the ethanol industry still has not bounced back,” Mr. Gottwald said in an interview. “We are seeing a shortage.” And that is making dry ice hard to come by.

For much of the summer, Marc Savenor, owner of Acme Dry Ice in Cambridge, Mass., which supplies medical companies, has been running low on carbon dioxide. Supply was the tightest he had seen in his 42 years of business, forcing Mr. Savenor to ration his dry ice.

“It was like a McDonald’s with no hamburgers,” he said, adding that carbon dioxide seemed to more plentiful in recent weeks.



UPS and FedEx are taking matters into their own hands. FedEx already has machines in warehouses that can produce dry ice, and UPS said it was considering adding them.

The companies will also have to provide their delivery employees with special training and equipment like gloves to handle their icy wares.

Pfizer has designed a special box to transport its hoped-for vaccine. The boxes, roughly the size of a large cooler, will hold a couple of hundred glass vials, each containing 10 to 20 doses of vaccine. The boxes are equipped with GPS-enabled thermal sensors, allowing Pfizer to know where the boxes are and how cold they are. (If they get too warm, workers can add dry ice.)

All of this leads to another problem: Glass often cracks in extreme cold.

Early this year, Corning, a 169-year-old glass maker in upstate New York, approached officials at the Department of Health and Human Services with a warning: There wouldn’t be enough cold-resistant glass vials to handle a frozen vaccine, said Brendan Mosher, Corning’s head of pharmaceutical technologies.



Corning pitched a solution. It could make millions of vials with a new type of pharmaceutical-grade glass that can withstand the lowest temperatures. In June, the government awarded the company a $204 million contract to increase its production of the special vials. The new glass is made without boron, a common ingredient in conventional glass that can lead to contamination of whatever is in the vials.

Mr. Mosher said Corning was using the federal money to quadruple the capacity at its plant in Big Flats, N.Y.; to accelerate construction of a glass furnace in New Jersey; and to speed up construction of an additional plant in North Carolina. Corning is hiring 300 workers and says it is on track to start producing hundreds of millions of glass vials next year.

Even if there is enough dry ice and chilled warehouses and sturdy vials, everyday pharmacies are unlikely to be equipped to stockpile large quantities of vaccines that require ultracold storage. Nevertheless, they might be able to keep Pfizer’s cooler-size boxes on hand, and Moderna’s vaccine can be stored at less extreme temperatures in the days before it is administered.

In a presentation to the White House coronavirus task force last month, Kathleen Dooling, a disease expert with the C.D.C., said strict temperature requirements “will make it very difficult for community clinics and local pharmacies to store and administer.” She said the vaccine would have to be dispensed “at centralized sites with adequate equipment and high throughput.” It’s not clear where those sites will be or who will administer the vaccines.

That is just in the United States. A vaccine requiring stringent temperature controls would be off limits for much of the developing world. A recent study by DHL and McKinsey found that a cold vaccine would be accessible to about 2.5 billion people in 25 countries. Large parts of Africa, South America and Asia, where super-cold freezers are sparse, would be left out.

“The consequence is to reinforce the staggering bias in favor of the wealthy and powerful few countries,” said Mr. Morrison, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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On Roofs or in Basements, a New Way to Ice Skate

It was a charming winter tableau, suitable for a postcard.

On a weekend evening, on the rooftop of the William Vale, a hotel in Brooklyn, families, friends and couples all bundled up in parkas, hats and gloves giggled as they skated on a rink. Some fell; others raced. When it got too cold, they retreated to a heated enclosure for cocoa and warm cocktails.

But something was just slightly off about this wonderland: The skaters were gliding on polymer panels that simulate the slip and feel of ice. On what is essentially plastic.

“The rink showed up in a big, giant truck,” said David Lemmond, the hotel’s general manager.

Made by Glice, a company based in Lucerne, Switzerland, this rink requires no cold weather, special blades, electricity or water (other than for cleaning). When skating season is over, the panels can be stacked and stored. In fact, Glice makes skating season a year-round affair.

It’s still slick, but Glice has a bit more “give” than real ice, so it’s less punishing if you fall hard. “We have never ice-skated before so for us, this is better,” said Bibi Haniff, who is from Guyana and was visiting New York and the William Vale rink with her young daughter and son. “It feels safer that it isn’t real ice.”

Nearby, a group of enthralled millennials chanted “Glice, Glice, Baby” as they skated.

Founded in Europe eight years ago, Glice now has 1,800 rinks worldwide, according to the company. In mid-December, before the rink at the William Vale opened, the government of Mexico City installed one in Zócalo, the main square there, that can fit 1,200 skaters (Rockefeller Center, New York’s renowned tourist rink of regular ice, accommodates approximately 150). A few years ago one was put in the Canadian Embassy in Rabat, Morocco, so diplomats could feel closer to home. Viktor Meier, a founder and the global C.E.O. of Glice, said a shopping center in northern Iraq recently commissioned one. “We are trying to figure out who to send as a supervisor,” he said. “No one wants to fly there right now.”

Glice arrived with little fanfare in the United States in 2017, when the Detroit Zoo installed a rink. There are already 22 others in retail centers, hotels and public parks across the country. The Mark Hotel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan offers a private one in its penthouse suite that is approximately 70 feet long and 11 feet wide. And over 300 American homes, mostly in the Midwest, have Glice rinks, which start at $1200 for a small one, in their garages, basements or backyards. Only 5 percent of Glice’s business is in the United States, but Mr. Meier said he expected that number to rise to 30 or 40 percent in the next few years.

Glice is arguably more ecologically conscious and certainly more convenient than traditional ice rinks, which require large amounts of water and electricity, as well as noisy, cumbersome machines including refrigeration systems and compressors.

“In the past I worked for a hotel that had a traditional ice skating rink,” Mr. Lemmond said. “You wouldn’t believe the logistics of it. It requires an enormous amount of infrastructure to keep frozen water frozen”: water tank, refrigerated pipes, 24-hour compressor and the famous Zamboni, which re-cuts the surface after it gets marked up and lays down a new layer of water to freeze. As the weather warms, ice turns to slush, of course—and tourists’ thoughts turn to swimming pools.

Credit…Franca Pedrazzetti for The New York Times

But just as heated pools can make swimming appealing in Northeast winters, synthetic rinks can now bring the pastimes of “ice” skating and hockey to warmer areas. “We now hope to get one in Guyana,” Ms. Haniff said. “It would be fun to have something new there.”

But the disconnect from nature inherent to the creation of such artificial pleasure biomes can also unsettle. We can ski indoors in a mall in New Jersey, surf in an artificial wave pool in Lemoore, Calif., and ice skate in shorts in Mexico City. Should every place, even in the Caribbean, offer winter sports?

“It struck me as sad,” said Sydney Mineer, 27, who works in casting and lives in Los Angeles, of happening upon a synthetic ice rink (made by PolyGlide, a Glice competitor) at the Westfield Century City mall while shopping for Christmas presents. “I was bewildered because it was so out of context.”

Synthetic rinks, though, have been part of the infrastructure of ice hockey for at least 40 years, said a spokesman for USA Hockey, the governing body for the sport. Companies like Xtraice, which put a rink in the John Hancock Center in Chicago in 2010, and PolyGlide, which appeared on the reality show “Shark Tank” in 2016, have been trying make the product more consumer-friendly ever since.

A decade ago, Toni Vera, a professional ice hockey player in Spain and engineer, was unhappy with the state of synthetic ice. He spent eight years testing different ingredients until he found a surface that met his expectations.

Mr. Meier, who is from Lucerne but got an M.B.A. at the University of Dallas, learned about Mr. Vera from a BBC show about inventors and persuaded Mr. Vera to go into business. They formed Glice, a portmanteau of “ice” and “glide.” Their first client, in 2012, was BASE Hockey, a Canadian company that operates small hockey training centers.

Mr. Meier is as secretive as Willy Wonka when it comes to the Glice formula. “But I will tell you, the ingredients, we ship them to Germany where they get pressed by a special process of high pressure and high heat,” he said. “Then the panels get cut with numeric, computerized machines to create a tongue-and-groove connection, allowing them to come together seamlessly.” The biggest cleaning challenge is getting into those grooves, with a pressure washer.

Those portable panels make a Glice rink is feasible for places like Shelby Farms, a 4,500-acre park in Memphis, where keeping the ice frozen even on a limited basis would be prohibitively expensive. A Glice rink there drew 100 skaters a day this season.

By using Glice instead of ice, the Mexico City government says it saved 49,000 gallons of water and 95 tons of carbon dioxide.

Mark Winter, chief executive of Glice USA in Boulder, Colo., said he was in talks with ski resorts that want rinks for their lodges but have made sustainability commitments (and need most of their water allowance to make snow). “I believe going into the next winter season we will have three Glice rinks at U.S. ski mountains,” he said.

Critics argue that Glice rinks are still bad for the environment because they are made of, well, plastic. But the company replies that this plastic is durable, with panels lasting 12 years, after which you can flip them over, and use them for another 12.

Glice’s relative affordability also makes it appealing. Many ice rinks across America were built in the 1960s and ’70s and desperately need repairs. The news is full of examples of local rinks closing or cities having to raise piles of money to save them. The Central Park Conservancy announced in the fall it would have to spend $110 million fixing the Lasker Rink, which is actually two 195-by-65 feet rinks, among other improvements, at the north end of the park.

In comparison Glice rinks cost $80,000 to $150,000 for a 2,000 to 4,000-square-foot rink, the range of sizes most shopping malls use. Venues can also rent the 2,000-square-foot rink for $32,000 for a winter season. “Every morning we just pressure-wash it and squeegee it,” said Nathan Moore, 32, a rink guard at the William Vale who grew up playing ice hockey in Detroit.

Could a rink near your kitchen sink be far behind?

In December, Kimberly Clavin, 45, a products engineer in Columbus, Ohio, had a Christmas surprise for her 9- and 12-year-old sons: a 9-foot-by-13-foot Glice rink in their basement. The family had seen a synthetic ice rink at Woodloch Resort in Pennsylvania, and she thought it would be the perfect addition to their home.

Her youngest, who just started playing goalie on a hockey team, uses it to practice before and after school, and doesn’t feel it’s appreciably different from the real thing. The older one likes to play on it with friends. “When I mention it to people, they look at me cross-eyed, but I tell them, it’s not more than a pool table, and it’s a lot less than a hot tub,” Ms. Clavin said. “People will start to realize this is just like any other recreational thing.”

But skating on a Glice rink is not a perfect substitute for the romantic capades of yore. There are no grooves from skaters or marks that show where a turn was made. There are no timeouts for the Zamboni, or cold air coming off the surface. Flushed cheeks, sparkling eyes and visible puffs of breath are not a given.

“It definitely takes some getting used to,” said Mr. Moore at the William Vale. “There are some differences. It doesn’t quite bite as much when you dig into the ice, so most people find it more slippery at first.” It takes about 15 minutes for skaters to adjust, he said. Many people do a shuffle-like motion until they realize they can make longer strides.

In Memphis, dozens of people would show up nightly at Shelby Farms Park to gawk at the rented Glice rink, but they were hesitant to participate, said Caroline Norris, director of sales and events there. “We find that when you add something new, it takes a minute for people to say, ‘O.K., what is that, now I want to try it,’” she said. “We probably focused too much on the messaging about Glice, and how it is a new thing, when people needed to associate it with ice skating.”

And Mr. Lemmond had a few customers complain because they were expecting traditional ice.

Still, he plans to roll out the Glice more often in the future. “Maybe we will do Christmas in July, and have people skating in shorts and T-shirts on the roof,” he said. And if some find that out of place or sad? “We aren’t going to force it on people. If that isn’t the experience they want, that is totally fine.”