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Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine is 90% effective so far – but there’s one crucial problem

Updated Nov 14th, 2020 6:34AM EST
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  • The Pfizer coronavirus vaccine is even more effective than experts had hoped, according to interim data released earlier this week.
  • Figures may change, but Pfizer seems to be on track to be the first vaccine maker to get FDA authorization for a drug that can reduce the spread of COVID-19.
  • There is one problem with this particular vaccine, however: It requires South Pole temperatures for storage and transport, making distribution incredibly challenging.
  • Pfizer has detailed the complex logistics involved in ensuring the vaccine reaches hospitals and pharmacies safely.

Pfizer and BioNTech are the first western companies to release interim data from the final stage of coronavirus vaccine testing. The mRNA genetic vaccine candidate showed an efficacy rate of over 90%, which is incredibly promising and well above the best estimates from health experts. That figure is not final, and the end results of the research might vary a bit, but a 90% efficacy rate so far is still extremely promising. Pfizer said the independent researchers who have access to the study data reported no significant side-effects, and more details about vaccine safety should be ready in the coming weeks. If the final efficacy and safety data are satisfying, Pfizer will apply for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) with the FDA and could start supplying vaccine doses for immunization campaigns by the end of the year.

Getting a vaccine approved for use is just one of the challenges researchers have to face. The technology that BioNTech used for the vaccine is a first for the industry, although other companies are also developing vaccines using genetic materials — Moderna’s Phase 3 experimental drug is an mRNA vaccine, for example. But these vaccines must be stored and transported at minus 70 degrees Celsius, which translates to minus 94 Fahrenheit. Shipping and storing the vaccine will be a huge issue that public health authorities must overcome to get the vaccine to all corners of the world. Pfizer is already working on the vaccine supply chain though, and the company has now explained how the drug will be transported, stored, and used.

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That minus 94F temperature is what you’d experience at the South Pole on a winter day, The New York Times explains. Both Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines will have the same storage and transportation requirements. The paper explained that Pfizer is manufacturing the vaccine in two locations, including one in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and another in Puurs, Belgium. The doses sold to the US government will mostly come from Kalamazoo.

Five doses will be included in each vial during manufacturing, and 195 vials will sit in a tray. Up to five trays, or almost 1,000 vials containing enough doses for 5,000 people, will be placed inside cooler boxes that Pfizer designed specifically for this purpose. Pfizer plans to have 100,000 coolers ready by the end of the month and double that figure by March.

Dry ice inside those boxes will keep the vaccine cool. They’ll also be equipped with sensors that will allow Pfizer employees to monitor locations and temperatures as FedEx and UPS handle deliveries.

Hospitals and pharmacies will need to find ways to store the doses until they’re needed. The easiest way is to use ultracold freezers, but not all facilities will have access to them. The trays can survive in conventional freezers for up to five days, or they can stay in the Pfizer cooler for up to 15 days as long as the dry ice is replenished, and people don’t open the boxes more than twice a day.

Transporting and storing the Pfizer vaccine are only parts of the process that health officials will have to figure out. They’ll also have to develop clear vaccination plans that will maximize the number of people who can get the drug before it expires. As noted above, the vaccine has strict temperature requirements that will complicate matters in rural areas and other countries that lack the infrastructure to support cold storage for extended periods of time.

Officials will also have to convince people to get vaccinated, and the Pfizer vaccine comes in two doses that must be administered three weeks apart. The people who get the first dose will have to make sure they come for the second shot. It’s obviously not enough for a vaccine to be highly effective and safe if people don’t get vaccinated.

The Times says that some 12.5 million Americans might get vaccinated by the end of 2020, which means Pfizer is readying up to 25 million doses for the US market this year alone.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.