The fight against COVID-19 hit a critical turning point last week with the approval of Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine trial for emergency use by the UK government. For a helpful summary of all the latest vaccine news, follow the New York Times’ Coronavirus Vaccine Tracker. Pfizer/BioNTech is hopefully the first of many vaccine treatments that will help to control and end the pandemic. Getting these vaccines to every part of the world is now the greatest packaging and distribution challenge of our lifetime. For fans of military history, packaging now plays the role of the Higgins Boat.
Andrew Higgins owned a New Orleans-based boat company in the late 1930s. An expert of small, shallow-water work boats, he was asked by the US government to build a transport boat that could carry troops from big ships to beaches while protecting them from enemy fire. Previously, the Navy could only attack ports. But with the invention of the LCVP, dubbed the Higgins Boat, troops could now spread their attack across a shoreline and stretch thin the defensive line.
The view from disembarking a Higgins Boat. (Credit Robert Sargent)
The packaging industry is now having its very own Higgins moment. The first two Covid-19 vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, are both messenger RNA vaccines. mRNA vaccines require deep cold storage, handling, thawing, and mixing until they are in an effective format and ready for human injection. New York mayor Andrew Cuomo recently demonstrated the full unboxing and handling of these vaccines. He dubbed the vaccines “the weapon that will win the war.” In his example, you see the complex, delicate set of conditions that packaging technology must account for.
NY mayor Andrew Cuomo detailing the secondary packaging needs of mRNA vaccines. (Credit ABC7NY)
This is a stressful set of requirements, but one that packaging engineers are accustomed to. Without meeting an exact set of specifications, packaging errors can compromise a vaccine or medical device’s effectiveness. It is why packaging is considered in the eyes of the FDA. It is the entire reasoning behind all the material testing, stability testing and performance testing we do. Our industry is conservative by nature because the stakes are so high.
Higgins knew the troops could not win the war without getting to the beach. To paraphrase Cuomo, the secret weapon to win the war on COVID-19 is the packaging. The last time our society attempted a global vaccination, it took 18 years to eradicate smallpox. This time it will be different because of the joint effort between scientists, engineers, and healthcare workers all working with one goal in mind…to eradicate COVID-19 and end this pandemic.