AUSTIN (KXAN) — The news of a Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine candidate making progress has got many people thinking about the logistical hurdles of distributing this vaccine, including the requirements to keep the vaccine at its ultra-low temperature.

At a virtual COVID-19 conference hosted by the University of Texas at Austin Wednesday, a UT molecular sciences professor wondered aloud “half-serious, half-joking” whether the need for cool storage for this vaccine would disrupt ice cream distribution. KXAN looked into this question and found that storage for this vaccine will actually need to be far cooler than the facilities where ice cream is stored. The Texas Department of State Health Services also told KXAN that, at least in this stage, Pfizer has a plan for vaccine distribution which will involve dry ice and will not require ice cream trucks or result in an ice cream shortage.

Texas ice cream companies Blue Bell and Amy’s also told KXAN they have not have not been asked to help distribute or store COVID-19 vaccines.

From Pfizer to healthcare facilities

Earlier this week, the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine candidate made headlines after it showed an efficacy rate of above 90%. The vaccine is reported to require storage at -70 degrees Celsius or -94 degrees Fahrenheit.

Chris Van Deusen, the Director of Media Relations for DSHS, assured us this Pfizer vaccine “is not going to disrupt the ice cream industry.”

Then, he added the joking caveat that the only way this vaccine would hurt the ice cream industry is “if we end the pandemic, and people get to go out again and stop eating so much ice cream at home.”

Van Deusen explained the Pfizer vaccine is going to be shipped directly from the manufacturer to the people who will be using it, which will initially be hospitals and healthcare workers.

He said Pfizer will ship the vaccines in thermal coolers which can be stocked with up to 5,000 doses of the vaccine and topped off with a layer of dry ice. Orders for these thermal cooler shipments will need to include a minimum of around 1,000 doses of the vaccine, Van Deusen explained, noting the state is asking to see if they can request smaller batches for more rural areas.

At first, he said, these shipments will go to places that have ultra-cold freezers that can store the vaccines. But for places without those special freezers, the thermal coolers can be re-stocked with dry ice to last longer.

“Dry ice might last for five days, and you can refill it a couple of times,” Van Deusen explained.

He added at this point, the Pfizer vaccine, which will likely be the first one to be available, is the only one that requires ultra-cold storage. For now, he believes Pfizer has the logistics of keeping the vaccine cold taken care of.

But Van Deusen acknowledged the vaccine’s temperature limitation “certainly is a challenge, it has to be shipped under those very specific and extreme conditions.”

Cooler than ice cream

Aric Jordan, the owner of Austin Ice Works (which specializes in tube ice), explained all of his company’s ice is transported at 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Ice cream, he explained, has to transport at zero degrees Fahrenheit. To transport at temperatures cold enough for the Pfizer vaccine would require dry ice, he believes.

At Austin’s Kwik Ice, which offers a range of ice services including dry ice, owner James Young says his company typically stores traditional ice in freezers at 15 degrees Fahrenheit with the ability to dial down the temperature as low as zero degrees.

Dry ice, Young noted, can be tricky to transport because it sublimates—or turns into gas—quickly, so a portion needs to be replenished each day. His dry ice is kept at -109.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Young said his company delivers a lot of dry ice to medical operations, though he is not sure how exactly those operations are using the dry ice right now.

Blue Bell's Milk & Cookies flavor (Courtesy Blue Bell Creameries)
Blue Bell’s Milk & Cookies flavor (Courtesy: Blue Bell Creameries)

Young agrees when it comes to the Pfizer vaccine, dry ice “might be the only solution for something that cold.”

Brenham, Texas-based ice cream maker Blue Bell tells KXAN both its cold storage and its direct-store-delivery trucks keep ice cream at -18 degrees Fahrenheit.

A spokesperson for Blue Bell explained while the company operates in parts of 22 states across the country it has not received any requests to help out with COVID-19 vaccine storage or distribution.

Aaron M. Clay, the marketing director for Austin-based Amy’s Ice Cream said the freezers in their production facility are -20 to -10 degrees Fahrenheit (-28°C to -23°C), and freezers in Amy’s stores can range from -10 to -5 degrees Fahrenheit (-23°C to -20°C). He added the manufacturer recommends Amy’s should not keep equipment at any temperature lower than -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Amy's Ice Creams cone
A cone of ice cream from Austin-based Amy’s Ice Cream.

As for Amy’s distribution trucks, the temperature can range between -10 to -5 degrees Fahrenheit (-23°C to -15°C).

Clay said none of Amy’s leadership has been contacted to help with storage or distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine. However, Clay notes “we would be happy to help in any way we possibly could.”

What scientists say

“What do we think about logistical complications with the distribution of these frozen MRNA vaccines?” Greg Ippolito, UT Research Assistant Professor of Oncology and Molecular Biosciences wondered aloud during a discussion at the UT forum Wednesday. He jokingly suggested now is the time to invest in publicly-traded ice cream companies.

Ippolito also noted the information Pfizer has released shows “great hope” for this ultra-cold vaccine candidate being effective.

UT’s Molecular Biosciences team has been studying coronaviruses long before the present pandemic. In particular, they have focused on researching what is known as the spike protein—the protrusions you see coming off of the coronavirus in depictions.

A rendering of coronavirus via the CDC.

The UT researchers told KXAN that it’s these protrusions people making vaccines and antibody therapies are trying to target.

Jason McLellan, an Associate Professor for Molecular Biosciences at UT explained his lab’s work with their collaborator from the National Institutes of Health on modifying the spike protein of the coronavirus has been used by companies looking to create COVID-19 vaccines, including Moderna.

“The research takes years, so you can’t wait for a pandemic to occur to embark on years of study,” McLellan explained.

He noted while his lab is able to store reagents at -70 degrees Celsius, that kind of cold storage isn’t common across the country. He explained that now, regions nationwide are “starting to be faced with the reality that they are going to have to distribute tens of millions of doses in an ultra-cold storage chain.”

Ilya Finkelstein, an Associate Professor of Molecular Biosciences at UT, noted during the virtual conference on Wednesday there are several DNA-based vaccines in development that would not need to be kept as cold as the Pfizer one. He also noted there are some RNA vaccines in the early phases of development working to find alternatives to the cold-storage requirement.

Finkelstein said he has been working with an interdisciplinary team to create a version of the spike protein for large-scale production which makes the protein “substantially more stable” and allows it to be stored at room temperature more easily.

In the immediate future, he expects the new MRNA vaccines that require cold storage to be the ones administered at major hospitals, who largely have “the supply chain issues solved.

“We are not going to be getting this at our local clinics any time soon,” he said.

Finklestein offered a cool dose of hopeful news: his team has seen no evidence that COVID-19 has evaded the first round of vaccines and therapeutics.

All things considered, he said, COVID-19 “is not mutating that quickly. “