Local Planning Efforts for COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

In our last blog post, we pointed out some of the daunting challenges associated with “Operation Warp Speed” (OWS) because certain COVID-19 vaccine candidates will require storage at -80°C, while other doses may need to be frozen from -40°C to -20°C. Perhaps the most significant OWS obstacle now falls to local/regional COVID preparedness teams to plan for vaccine “last mile” distribution and administration. “Last mile” is a general term used within the cold chain space to indicate the connection from a regional repository to the end patient recipient. The responsibility sits with thousands of local health systems, clinical sites and pharmacies to plan local vaccine inoculation, where the side task of now needing to maintain the ultra-low temperature (ULT) cold chain may be the most difficult aspect of guaranteeing safe and effective doses. That is because most local facilities, processes and organizations providing vaccines for patients around the world have never had to prepare for a task of this magnitude, let alone at this temperature range!

Last Mile Vaccine Cold Storage Challenges
This lack of local preparedness is evidenced by the recent list of questions submitted by the National Governors Association to the Trump administration, which focuses on pressing issues related COVID-19 vaccine distribution, administration and cold chain at the regional and municipal level. This letter expresses specific concerns about dry ice shortages and handling issues, as well as the limited availability of ULT storage equipment in health care systems. In fact, health care facilities and pharmacies that will need to store and administer COVID-19 vaccines rarely have access to ULT freezers. Traditional ULTs have tended to be too expensive, bulky and noisy for clinical environments, with most requiring dedicated power supply to remain operative.

Local leaders will also be challenged to get vaccines from central state repositories to remote or immobile communities, such as rural populations, extended care facilities, nursing homes, etc., without breaking the ULT cold chain. Vaccine distribution partnerships with large pharmacy chains or health systems will only work if patients can and will drive to them. Finally, large pharmacy chains are not consistently available across all geographies and one size may not fit all.

Cold Storage Solutions for Local COVID Preparedness
To maintain vaccine efficacy, health care facilities and pharmacies have the option of deploying ULT freezers designed for remote and portable use in limited spaces. Stirling Ultracold’s ULT25NEU portable freezer and SU105UE undercounter model are ideal for local vaccine administrators who will suddenly find themselves needing remote and on-site ultra-low storage of frozen vaccine doses. These compact, lightweight units deliver the same performance and reliability as full-size ULTs and can be easily moved throughout clinical sites and plugged into any outlet worldwide, avoiding the need for building rewiring or HVAC modifications.

Depending on which vaccine candidates release, cold storage requirements of -20°C to -80°C must be available, and Stirling Ultracold freezers are the ONLY units available to cover that range and will help local leaders cover their bases.

Stirling ULT freezers are also available with SenseAnywhere remote cloud-based monitoring for these critical vaccine doses. With precise temperature setpoint control and the ability to log vaccine temperatures, point-of-care facilities and pharmacies can also maintain a reliable audit trail on site.

With the limited availability, life span and temperature control of dry ice cooling, portable and compact ULT storage will become a critical linchpin for local delivery of safe and effective vaccines to the public.

A Local Health System Leading the Way
The North Dakota Department of Health recently took notice of the unique temperature range and compact ULT models offered by Stirling Ultracold as they finalized their COVID preparedness programs. They’ve since decided to purchase multiple ULT25NEU portable freezers to distribute these vaccines from their central warehouses within their population. The ULT25NEU portable units are capable of transporting smaller batches of vaccines to local clinics and storing them for multi-dose waves. All the while, these ULT freezers hold doses at optimal temperatures until the vaccine is ready to be administered. With this last mile solution, North Dakota DOH now has the potential to become the model for many other more-remote communities across the United States.

Learn how to lead the way in COVID preparedness for your area. Download our COVID-19 Vaccine Administration Local Planning Guide

Three Cold Chain Obstacles to Rapid COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

As of this blog posting, more than 30 COVID-19 vaccine candidates are in development worldwide in a historic pandemic response. In the United States alone, the “Operation Warp Speed” (OWS) collaboration driven by the federal government and 18 biopharmaceutical companies, intends to deliver 300 million vaccine doses by early 2021.

Standing in their way is this stark reality: more than 50% of vaccines may be wasted every year because of temperature control, logistics and shipment-related issues, according to the World Health Organization.

Given the urgent global need for a COVID-19 vaccine, manufacturers, third-party logistics (3PL) providers and distribution centers must overcome three significant challenges that could threaten rapid vaccine deployment and availability. Our recent white paper, Meeting the Challenges of Rapid COVID-19 Vaccine Cold Chain Deployment on an Unprecedented Scale, explains in detail how 3PL and pharma distribution organizations must ramp up ultra-low temperature (ULT) cold chain capacity in order to safely store and deliver vaccines. Here are key points and insights from the white paper that can help meet the cold chain requirements of accelerated vaccine deployment.

Obstacle: The approved storage temperatures for the different COVID-19 vaccines are still somewhat unknown.

Certain COVID-19 vaccine candidates will require -80°C storage, while others may allow for warmer frozen storage ranging from -40°C to -20°C. How will your organization ensure it’s prepared to meet the storage requirements of any one of the viable vaccine candidates?

Expand capacity throughout the cold chain with ULT freezers designed to provide the widest temperature range. Stirling Ultracold offers the ONLY commercially available freezer models that can safely maintain temperature setpoints from -86°C to -20°C. These units meet the cold storage efficacy requirements of the majority of COVID-19 vaccine candidates, regardless of which are ultimately approved.


Obstacle: Few distribution facilities are designed for high-volume ULT vaccine storage.

Quick answers are needed to questions about the heat ULTs generate, how to fit them into limited floor space, as well as their power demands and potentially high energy costs. How will warehouses and distribution centers overcome these facility infrastructural obstacles when ramping up ULT freezer capacity for high-volume COVID-19 vaccine storage?

Increase ULT storage capacity with freezers that require less space, energy and infrastructure to operate over a wider range of ambient conditions and voltages. ENERGY STAR®-certified units can significantly reduce electricity usage and costs as well as the associated heat output and operating carbon footprint. Stirling ULT freezers produce less heat than standard compressor-based models and operate reliably in warmer conditions. This reduces the HVAC load and enables your organization to avoid expensive and time-consuming modifications to existing facilities. Other infrastructural obstacles can be eliminated globally by choosing Stirling ULT technology, which uses 110V-240V universal power to operate anywhere in the world without electrical modifications.


Obstacle: The vaccine cold chain must be unbroken throughout on-site storage, bulk loading and transportation.

Before COVID-19 vaccine doses can be administered to billions of patients, they must be transported and safely stored along the journeys from manufacturing facilities to 3PLs, distribution centers and health systems throughout the world. How will your organization maintain ultra-low temperatures along the entire way, from end-to-end?

Combine active and passive cooling technologies to ensure vaccine efficacy and eliminate cold chain gaps in transit. Active cooling technologies include stationary ULT freezers and shipping containers with built-in refrigeration powered by plug-in and/or battery backups. Passive cooling options include dry ice, vacuum-insulated panels (VIPs) and containers using phase-change materials (PCMs) that must be “charged” via active cooling prior to transport.

Temperature trackers or monitoring devices can be used with cloud-based monitoring platforms to enable a continuous cold chain of custody through all stages of the vaccine distribution process. Likewise, Stirling Ultracold freezers can be easily enabled for connectivity, monitoring and integration with existing BMS/BAS platforms.


Are you prepared to keep frozen COVID-19 vaccines safe and effective?

Scaling up cold chain deployment to manufacture and distribute COVID-19 vaccine doses is daunting. Nonetheless, vaccine manufacturers, 3PLs and distribution centers can prepare now before vaccine candidates are fully approved. ULT freezers are available that can enable your organization to avoid risking vaccine efficacy while also minimizing the infrastructural and financial challenges that lie ahead.

Download our complete Vaccine Cold Chain White Paper