Here’s how a lack of dry ice could stymie coronavirus vaccine distribution

dry ice coronavirus vaccine
Photo via Dave Herholz/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)
  • The pandemic has caused a carbon dioxide shortage
  • Carbon dioxide is needed to produce dry ice
  • Dry ice will be important in the distribution of the coronavirus vaccine

The COVID-19 pandemic has given the hiccups to all kinds of supply chains in the United States, causing shortages in various goods, like flour, yeast, Clorox wipes, and pepperoni. But one shortage could have an impact on vaccine development: carbon dioxide. The reason this is important: Dry ice is necessary to transport and distribute vaccines.

Carbon dioxide has been hard to find since early in the pandemic. As Quartz noted, carbon dioxide is primarily produced using the byproduct of industrial chemicals like ammonia, ethylene oxide, and bioethanol. Ethanol production depends on the demand for gas. In April, gas sales plummeted by more than 30% when most parts of the U.S. went into lockdown and Americans stopped driving as much as usual. 

Renewable Fuels Association Chief Executive Geoff Cooper told Reuters in April that 34 of the 45 U.S. ethanol plants that sell CO2 had idled or cut production. 

“Suddenly people stopped driving, then there wasn’t a demand for gas, so there wasn’t a demand for ethanol, so then CO2 started drying up,” Rich Gottwald, CEO of the Compressed Gas Association, told Quartz. 

This shortage has had a chain reaction. With no CO2, carbonated beverage makers have struggled to produce products like beer, sparkling water, and soda. The shortage has also affected the production of dry ice. 

Dry ice is a solid form of carbon dioxide, primarily used as a cooling agent. It is used to transport items that must remain cold or frozen, such as ice cream or biological samples. 

As dry ice supply has plummeted, the demand has gone up. For example, delivery services need more dry ice than ever to keep up with the rise in customers who have avoided leaving their homes during the pandemic and are ordering their products from online sellers. 

Vaccine research has also increased the demand for dry ice. According to the New York Times, at least two of the COVID-19 vaccines will need to be stored on dry ice. That includes the Pfizer vaccine that is 95% effective.

While Quartz reports that most of the U.S. has begun to recover from the shortage, the Northeast continues to lack CO2. 

Marc Savenor told NPR affiliate WBUR that the 50,000 pounds of dry ice that arrives at his Acme Dry Ice in Cambridge, Massachusetts every morning is gone just three hours later. 

“I can’t get ahead,” Savenor told WBUR. “I’ve been doing this for 42 years and I’ve never seen it like this ever.”

Savenor said roughly 50% of his customers are working on some element of coronavirus vaccine research. With vaccines still in their clinical trials, Savenor said he can’t imagine how he and his constituents will manage demand once millions of vaccine doses go into production. 

Gottwald told WBUR he’s hopeful CO2 will make a comeback by the end of October. With lockdowns lifting and Americans feeling more confident to leave their homes, gas use has increased and the need for dry ice for food delivery has decreased. Plus, people will drink less carbonated beverages as temperatures fall. 

However, Savenor feels less confident that dry ice supply will improve by winter, as the demand from vaccine development dramatically increases. 

In September, though, it was reported that a vaccine candidate from Johnson & Johnson wouldn’t need to be stored in sub-zero temperatures, negating the need for dry ice.

By late November, UPS said it would begin making dry ice. According to the shipping company, it can make about 1,200 pounds of dry ice per hour to help transport the coronavirus vaccines.

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Sources: Quartz, Reuters, New York Times, WBUR

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