Durham company behind keeping COVID-19 vaccine cool during transport

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) — Phononic, a Durham-based semiconductor cooling and heating company, is producing totes that can help keep the COVID-19 vaccine cool during transport.

“We can store several thousand ampules in a tote this size so what you would have is a large distribution or a warehouse site that would store massive volumes of the vaccine and then they would be a distribution point to go elsewhere in the community,” said Phononic CEO and co-founder Tony Atti.

The company’s technology is used in refrigerators at hospitals to keep vaccines and medications cool.

Atti said the totes feature semiconductor technology made in Durham that can keep the vaccine very cold.

“The vaccine has to be kept at very careful temperatures, very precise, very little variation and very stable with no vibration and if not, it’ll very easily spoil,” Atti said.

The lipid nanoparticles that encapsulate the mRNA are extremely temperature sensitive and must be kept very, very cold. The vaccine has to be stored at -80 degrees Celsius. To put it in perspective, that’s the temperature at which carbon dioxide — the gas people exhale — freezes solid (what we know as “dry ice”).

If they go outside that range, they stop working, researchers say.

Phononic said it’s been tapped by national refrigeration and cold storage providers to help with distribution and that logistics are still being ironed out.

“The Pfizer/Moderna announcements were critical first steps in the treatment of COVID but now the real work begins in the cold-chain logistics to take that vaccine from the point of origination all the way through a sophisticated cold chain to some administration site where the public then gets inoculated,” he said.

Atti said they are producing several hundred totes now and several thousand early next year.

“The tote has connection points right here at the base,” he said, showing the tote. “So the tote can literally plug in to a recharging base which itself can be powered or the tote can be connected to a battery backup for direct charge.”

When not connected, Atti said the totes can keep products cool for six hours.

“This tote has a unique size dimension associated with ergonomics so a nurse or a doctor can lift and carry the tote without it being prohibitively heavy,” Atti said. “But for other shipping and transport options, we do have larger designs.”

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