(Baltimore) On Tuesday, the American SME Capitol Carbonic was already torn between two realities: since the start of the pandemic, it must meet a surge in demand for its flagship product, dry ice, and deal with a shortage of carbon dioxide , necessary to manufacture them.
Posted on December 2, 2020 at 6:41 p.m.
France Media Agency
It was then that the phone rang. At the end of the line, it was Pfizer. In a few minutes and after coming and going after this first contact, the family SME found itself plunged into the fastest vaccination campaign in history.
The global pharmacy giant has been hunting for the dry ice that Capitol Carbonic has been extracting for six decades from a machine resembling a pasta-making tool in a warehouse in Baltimore, Maryland.
This dry ice allows the doses of the vaccine co-produced by Pfizer and the German company BioNTech to be stored at very low temperatures to prevent COVID-19.
The US authorities are due to vote next week on the authorization request filed by Pfizer / BioNTech. In the event of a green light, it would be the start of a huge logistical challenge in which dry ice manufacturers, like Capitol Carbonic, will play a central role.
“We have never experienced something like this in the history of administering a vaccine in the United States,” said Omar Chane, consultant at PwC.
“We are ready, our tanks are full,” said Brian Gallizzo, CFO of Capitol Carbonic, to AFP.
Pfizer and BioNTech plan to distribute 6.4 million doses of their vaccine with the green light expected shortly after December 10 and millions of additional doses by the end of the month.
Far from the usual range of 2 ° to 8 ° C – similar to that of a refrigerator – required for doses of influenza vaccines, this vaccine should not be exposed to temperatures above -70 ° C to ensure its effectiveness.
Carbon dioxide snow
The dose shipping boxes will be filled with dry ice, a substance made from solidified carbon dioxide that turns into gas as quickly as it is produced.
In its warehouse the size of a basketball court, Capitol Carbonic manufactures tens of thousands of tonnes per day.
This carbon dioxide snow made to the sound of the howls of machines is packaged by size ranging from the largest, like a block, to the smallest, like a grain of rice.
In this range, we find the pellet that interests Pfizer, which has created special containers to maintain a very low temperature with dry ice for 15 days. But for this, only two brief openings per day of the package will be authorized.
Permission has been obtained from civil aviation in order to increase the quantity of carbon dioxide snow transportable by air, the sublimation – passage from solid to gaseous state – which could be dangerous for the crew.
Making or producing carbon dioxide snow is not easy.
“The very nature of dry ice is that as soon as you make it, it starts to evaporate,” acknowledges John Dillinger, CEO of Capitol Carbonic. “What happens if a CVS or Walgreens (pharmacy) receives some and after eleven days their box has no more? “.
In the months leading up to Pfizer’s call, Capitol Carbonic had had a mixed year.
On the one hand, demand for dry ice had soared, fueled by a surge in online food orders by consumers confined to their homes.
On the other hand, there was a shortage of carbon dioxide, which is extracted from refined petroleum products, such as gasoline.
“This year is unprecedented,” says Brian Gallizzo, enthusiastic about the idea of taking part in an adventure with global repercussions.
He assures us that the dry ice industry will be able to keep up with demand, but the same cannot be said for other players in the supply chain.
“The challenge is going to be how we get the vaccine to customers,” he says.
While other vaccines manufactured by Pfizer’s competitors can be stored in a normal freezer, experts say it is not excluded that dry ice could also be used to keep them cold during transport.
“Each time they are moved by a manager, the ambient temperature will be warmer, which will impact the temperature of the box,” says Glenn Richey, professor of supply chain management at Auburn University. .
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