The Covid Cold Chain

How the pandemic has changed the future

efore COVID-19, the cold chain wasn’t on most people’s radar, but shifting consumer demands, concern over food supply and specific healthcare needs during a pandemic put it in the spotlight. “It changed last spring when we started to see disruptions and challenges in the early days of the pandemic related to food,” said Lowell Randel, director of government affairs for IIAR and senior vice president of government and legal affairs for the Global Cold Chain Alliance. “The attention around the cold chain got even more intense with the vaccines coming online.”

Michael Golek, a spokesman for GEA Group Aktiengesellschaft, said the pandemic has placed a greater focus on the environmental health and safety discipline in the refrigeration industry. “This is reflected in the strict precautions and procedures put in place to ensure that our industry can remain operational in order to supply our food industry customers with the equipment and services needed for them to continue to operate,” he said.


Throughout the pandemic, Randel has been in regular communication with the government. “I was saying, ‘We’ve got a lot of capacity out there in the cold chain industry to provide temperature control logistics for whatever type of product needs to be stored,” he said, adding that most of the needs were for food. “If there are significant gaps where there is a need to fill distribution and storage for vaccines, there are a lot of companies out there that are ready and willing to help if needed and called upon.”


Randel said the recent focus on pharmaceuticals could provide new opportunities for some in the natural refrigerant industry. “All of the attention due to the vaccine is giving people the motivation to evaluate if it makes sense to get involved with pharmaceuticals,” he said. “When you think about pharmaceuticals, you have security elements, liability considerations, insurance requirements and additional licensing. There are some complexities in dealing with pharmaceuticals.”

Another consideration is that pharmaceuticals can’t be stored in the same area as food. “You would need to have plans in place for the segregation of product,” Randel said. “I think people are looking at what it would take to transition some of their operations to accommodate pharmaceuticals, but it is going to be a very individual assessment that companies will make to see how a transition to pharmaceuticals fits in their long-term plans.”

Golek said, generally speaking, there is a trend in the cold chain away from the use of traditional cold stores and distribution centers that serve various companies. “The trend in some regions is toward processors developing their own storage and distribution logistics and not relying on others to store and ship their products. This has created less spare capacity among cold stores that serve multiple customers,” he said, adding that natural refrigerants remain an excellent choice for large cold stores.

Golek said there are opportunities for ammonia and CO2 to support the global pharmaceutical manufacturing and distribution supply chain. “As most industries, ours constantly strives to innovate and introduce ways to increase efficiency and reduce energy use. This benefit is twofold for our customers – lower operating expenses and reduced carbon footprints,” he said. Additionally, low-charge, high-efficiency ammonia chillers and semi-hermetic screw compressors for enhanced safety can improve ammonia’s general efficiency in the pharmaceutical cold chain, Golek said.

The COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna both have unique temperature requirements. Pfizer’s vaccine must be kept ultra-cold. “They recognized the -70-degree requirement was unique, and the conventional supply chain is not configured to reach those temperatures,” Randel said. “They took a packaging solution to address the temperature control down to those low temps.”

Pfizer utilizes dry ice to keep the vaccine cold. “You’re seeing the use of specialized packaging, and in many cases, it is shipped directly from the point of manufacturing to the point of distribution. It isn’t going to a third-party warehouse as you might see with food,” Randel said. “With food, you have this established supply chain where inventories go from manufacturing to warehouses to distribution centers and then to the ultimate destination. Particularly with the Pfizer vaccine, they are not going through those multiple steps.”

“You’re seeing the use of specialized packaging, and in many cases, it is shipped directly from the point of manufacturing to the point of distribution. It isn’t going to a third-party warehouse as you might see with food.”

– Lowell Randel, director of government affairs for IIAR and senior vice president of government and legal affairs for the Global Cold Chain Alliance


The Moderna vaccine is stored in more conventional temperatures. “Your average cold storage warehouse and traditional refrigerated transport can handle those temperature requirements,” Randel said.


It may take two to three years to understand how the current COVID vaccines will affect demand. “Will the vaccine need to be administered annually like the flu shot? I don’t think we really know that yet,” Randel said. However, the cold chain’s overall demand will continue to grow, but it won’t be limited to the pharmaceutical industry, Randel said. “We expect increased demand on the food side as well,” he said. “The question of how much goes to pharmaceutical as opposed to food is a harder question to answer.”

Despite the economic downturn in 2020 following the COVID-19 pandemic, new projects with both ammonia and CO2 continued for Star Refrigeration, said Robert Lamb, group sales and marketing director for Star Refrigeration. “In fact, it has been a record year in terms of new equipment contract sales,” he said, adding that many projects have included Star Refrigeration’s Azanechiller and Azanefreezer projects, which offer low-charge ammonia and deliver a new benchmark in terms of energy efficiency.

The temperature-controlled distribution sector has seen particular investment in 2020, including new high bay cold storage facilities and traditional warehouse designs,” Lamb said. “We’ve also been involved in retrofit projects, removing high GWP gases such as R404A for ammonia.”

There have also been a number of Azanechiller orders for the pharmaceutical business, including three off 1MW chillers for a leading pharma business as part of a new construction project and three 1.2MW chillers for another customer, replacing old absorption equipment, Lamb said.

For chill temperature warehouses, Star Refrigeration has used its Azanechiller product to cool glycol to room coolers, Lamb said. “For cold storage applications, our Azanefreezer has been used, which uses low charge ammonia technology,” Lamb said.

Caleb Nelson, vice president of business development for Azane, the U.S.-based division of Star Refrigeration, said there has also been an uptick in California’s cold storage business, specifically in applications where product storage flexibility is needed. “This is partly due to COVID creating uncertainty in the demands of the consumer,” he said. “One quarter a warehouse may need to store frozen product, and the next may need to transition part of the facility to chill storage to accept a specific crop of fresh produce, for example.”

On the industrial beverage side, Azane is doing work with the Azanechiller, which is supporting existing facility expansions. “Simple increases in demand have required additional chiller capacity for production,” he said.


Randel said the pandemic has highlighted the adaptability of the cold supply chain and emphasized the importance of the industry. “I absolutely believe policymakers will look to us as an important partner,” he said. “The cold chain is an important part of critical infrastructure. We are essential businesses. We play a critical function, and we want to partner to make sure people have access to safe, quality products,” he said.