COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution: Packaging an End to the Pandemic

COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

It seems that about once every two or three weeks, my oldest child will ask me, “Dad, when will COVID be over?” It’s the question we all have, but the one no one can really answer. The hope is that a vaccine will go far in putting an end to the pandemic. Researchers and pharmaceutical companies have been working nearly around the clock since January to study and develop a vaccine and they are making extraordinary progress with more than 165 in development and 30 vaccines in human trials. But what about the next big question: How do we get a vaccine distributed to the world?

To the people stuck in their home offices in Milan, Seoul, Sao Paulo, Miami and Sydney, the answer to that question is simple: ship it! And wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was that easy? But those of us in the cold chain and pharmaceutical industries know that it’s far more complicated. And, COVID-19 has added a number of new obstacles to alter the complex, yet normal processes we’re used to, including less air cargo space, shipping delays and distribution to remote locations and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Overcoming these challenges will take considerable cooperation, creativity and flexibility from everyone in the cold chain industry. From our end – thermal shipping solutions – I have a few ideas on how we can help.

Addressing the Obstacles


While normally not an obstacle, most of the COVID-19 vaccines currently in development will need to maintain a temperature of approximately -70°C (-94°F). Where this becomes a challenge is in longer shipment durations due to reduced air cargo capacity. Until passenger planes start flying again, this will not change because a large portion of air cargo is transported on the lower decks of wide body passenger jets. In order to manage a global distribution, freight forwarders will have to get creative with the resources available.

Let’s assume that forwarders will reserve most of the air cargo space for overseas shipments. Then what? The cargo gets moved to road or rail transport for distribution. Now instead of a transit time of 24-36 hours from manufacturer to local health agencies, we’re looking at potentially four to five days if there are no delays. This is where the thermal shipper becomes critical. It must be capable of maintaining the required temperature for a minimum of 120 hours in addition to meeting all of the government regulations and qualifications for temperature-controlled packaging. Do these containers exist? Yes. Thankfully, they do.

The passive parcel engineering and product teams here at CSafe recently revamped our entire line of thermal shippers with best-in-class vacuum insulated panel (VIP) technology. The entire line is pre-qualified to ISTA 7D and ISTA 3A worst case challenge testing and is available in 96+ hour and 120+ hour shipment durations. Though, I’ll mention that when we tested the 120 hour shipper against COVID-19 requirements, it far exceeded that duration. For the COVID-19 vaccine shipments, we’re recommending our -80°C solution (the line includes Controlled Room Temperature and +2°C to +8°C solutions as well) and manufacturers can choose from four sizes ranging from 5L to 35L with a 56L option coming soon.


The next two issues we’re facing are all about time: shipping delays due to additional safety precautions and reaching new or remote locations. Either of these could result in even longer shipping durations. The easiest solution here is to add some insurance in the form of an active container. CSafe Parcel -80°C packaging shipped inside a CSafe RKN or RAP effectively controls the ambient temperature for the parcel boxes and extends the temperature protection to 10+ days. Add to this the track and trace technology that will be released in Q4 and that timeframe can be extended further with appropriate interventions.


Regulatory approvals could come one at a time staggered by weeks or months or they could come in small or large groups. Global approvals may be staggered as well leading to even more complexity. It is impossible to predict how that will happen. Manufacturers are likely producing vaccines now in order to distribute doses immediately following approval. However, additional releases may come in waves with unpredictable timing due to raw material constraints or manufacturing issues.

We all know that raw materials for nearly any type of manufacturing takes some time to secure these days. CSafe is well prepared and we have yet to experience any disruption in our supply of raw materials. However, we’ve all learned that preparation and back-up plans are our friends. To that end, I would recommend that manufacturers place parcel orders for COVID-19 vaccine shippers when they begin production or shortly after and well before they send the vaccine for government approval. This should ensure that by the time the vaccine is approved, and the vials are ready to ship, your shippers and active containers will be on site and ready to load for transport.


On the slim chance you’d forgotten, the northern hemisphere is about to enter flu season as well. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), manufacturers have projected they will provide 194-198 million doses of flu vaccine – a considerable increase over last year’s production. What this means for COVID-19 vaccine distribution is that there is a competing vaccine for another deadly virus that will be shipping at a similar time frame further exacerbating the strain on cargo capacity and raw materials inventory.

Final Thoughts

No one can promise that this distribution effort will be completed without any major issues. There will be failures. Things will go wrong. The industry has never attempted anything close to this scale of distribution. There are 7.8 billion people in the world, and we have to give each of them the opportunity to get this vaccine. This is a herculean effort if I’ve ever seen one. What I do know and what I can promise, is that CSafe and our cold chain partners will do everything in our power to protect these vaccines while they are in our care. Our goal is “Temperature assured. Life enhanced.” and I can’t think of another opportunity that could represent that more so than this.