The ultra-cold temperatures required for storing the Covid-19 vaccine developed by U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and Germany-based BioNTech has driven a buying frenzy for freezers and dry ice. However, large-scale freezers units are expensive — and with hospital budgets already strained during the pandemic, dry ice has emerged as the go-to option.
That's how Chris Vida, owner of Dry Ice Depot, described what he's seeing right now.
Vida's business — located in Bridgewater, New Jersey — ships on average 40,000 to 50,000 pounds of dry ice per day. He told CNBC that new orders continue to pour in from hospitals that will have to store their Pfizer vaccine supplies at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. "[Tuesday] was a big day, we moved around 70,000 pounds of dry ice. So our inventory is a little shot. We've ramped up double our normal volume at this point."
The average dry ice order amount from hospitals is 170 pounds, Vida said, adding that he's also receiving big orders from pharmacies and shipping giants like FedEx.
Distributors and suppliers across the nation are dealing with a similar situation in preparation of the vaccine receiving emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. Limited approval could be given this week after the agency's vaccines committee meets Thursday.
Acme Dry Ice in Boston, one of the largest distributors of dry ice in the nation, told CNBC that it's team plans to work over the holidays to ensure he can fulfill the new orders that are coming in. "There is no sleep for the vaccine or the Covid virus," said Marc Savenor, president of Acme Dry Ice.
Unlike the ice in your home refrigerator, dry ice is a solid form of carbon dioxide, or CO2. Back in March, fewer cars on the road due to the pandemic contributed to a decline in ethanol production, which produces CO2 as a by-product, resulting in a shortage of the gas. Experts said that driving ultimately returned over the summer and CO2 supplies, in turn, have rebounded.
Rich Gottwald, president of the Compressed Gas Association, told CNBC the industry is confident there's enough CO2 product to meet demand for the vaccine. CGA is a trade body representing the biggest CO2 suppliers and dry ice manufacturers. "The shortage that we saw in the spring was really alleviated by the end of the day, by driving coming back over the summer. [Companies] are ready to supply dry ice as soon as the vaccine comes available," he added.
The industrial and chemical companies involved in the production of CO2 and dry ice are not the most high-profile names. Airgas, part of Air Liquide, supplies dry ice. Continental Carbonic, part of Matheson, is another supplier. Germany's Linde acquired U.S. based Praxair in 2018 for more than $80 billion. Linde, along with Air Products, supply CO2, which is then converted into dry ice by their customers.
One of the key challenges with dry ice is that, unlike toilet paper, it can't stockpiled.
"Over time dry ice will revert back to its gaseous form, whether that be five, seven, 10 days, it certainly has a lifespan," Gottwald explained. "At that point, if it's being used for a vaccine, the product would need to be re-iced .. more ice would be needed to be applied to the vaccine to keep it at that temperature."
It's one of the key reasons hospitals are looking to set up longstanding contracts with Vida at Dry Ice Depot in New Jersey: To ensure they can come back for refills when they run out. Vida said that one of the hospitals he's supplying dry ice to is St. Barnabas Hospital in The Bronx in New York City.
While hospitals figure out how many vaccines doses they will be allotted, the staff is puzzled over how much dry ice they will need to keep the Pfizer vaccine at the proper temperature. "Now all the questions are starting and, you know, there's a lot of confusion out there. People really don't know how its going to be stored, how we're going to ship. How much do we [hospitals] need," said Vida.
Medical workers and nurse technicians immunizing citizens will also have to learn how to handle dry ice at such fridge temperatures. Experts said that protective gear is needed to avoid frostbite — and if too much is inhaled, it can become a serious health risk.
Forensic Detectors — a small business based in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, which specializes in monitoring toxic gases like CO2 — has also seen sales skyrocket. "My sales have increased over 10 times over the past three months, owner Dr. Kos Galatsis told CNBC. "We are sold out of carbon dioxide detectors."
Companies that make ultra-cold freezers also are experiencing a surge in demand.
In late November, Dan Hensler, vice president of Cincinnati-based So-Low Environmental Equipment, said the company was "out of everything" despite its efforts to build up an inventory backlog. "It's been crazy. It's absolutely been crazy," he told CNBC then.
Carrier and Trane Technologies — both of which specialize in cold storage options from trucks to freezers — told CNBC they're actively working with Operation Warp Speed, the White House's public-private program to accelerate the development, manufacturing and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and treatments.
— CNBC's Patrick Manning and Kevin Stankiewicz contributed to this story.