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Why Dippin' Dots might have a place in the COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan

The brand operates a line of ultra-cold freezers that could keep the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the appropriate temperature.
To keep that perfectly round shape, Dippin' Dots ice cream has to be stored at lower temperatures than most other frozen desserts.
To keep that perfectly round shape, Dippin' Dots ice cream has to be stored at lower temperatures than most other frozen desserts. Colleen Fenwick Dutcher / Shutterstock
/ Source: TODAY

The coronavirus vaccines are on their way, but the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, so far the only option that has been approved in the United States, has one complicating factor: It needs to be stored at -94 F.

That's an incredibly cold temperature, even for vaccines, and has led to concerns that even as the vaccine is distributed, many places may not have the facilities to store it.

A potential answer, first reported by PopSci, comes from an unlikely source: Dippin' Dots.

Yes, the company that manufactures the beloved pelletized ice cream treat also operates freezers that get as cold as -122 F. This is probably not what Dippin' Dots had in mind when describing itself as the "Ice Cream of the Future."

"It's actually colder than dry ice," Stan Jones, the chief development officer for Dippin' Dots, explained to TODAY Food. "We have the ability, we have those freezers accessible."

However, those ultra-cold freezers aren't the same ones that Dippin' Dots ice cream is stored in: While the sweet treat needs to be kept at a colder temperature than most ice creams to maintain its round shape, the freezers that Dippin' Dots are kept in only reach -40 F.

Jones explained that the company developed the ultra-cold storage with a subsidiary company so that they could provide equipment to other industries, including medical facilities that raise bacteria cultures. In fact, some of the ultra-cold freezers are already used as vaccine storage.

"They're using our equipment to pelletize, just like we pelletize our ice cream," Jones said. "They'll pelletize some of their products, using the same process that we do, so we developed an equipment line through Dippin' Dots (D.D.) Cryogenics to provide equipment to those other industries."

He said that the company has gotten some inquiries about using their facilities to store doses of the coronavirus vaccine.

"We have a had a few … Most of our inquiries are coming from pharmacies and places that might be administering the vaccines and are anticipating what they might need for storage," Jones said, adding that they have also had requests from local health departments. "We've been getting inquiries but we're not overwhelmed with them."

Jones said that in their responses, the company confirms that they can obtain freezers. However, he said that he makes it clear to any interested parties that the same freezers can't be used for food and vaccines.

"We don't recommend storing vaccines in a freezer that was used for food or food in a freezer that has stored vaccine," he said. "We want to be very cautious about what we tell the end user, because foods and vaccines should not be mixed."

In Ontario, Canada, at least one health department is thinking along the same lines: The Grey Bruce Health Unit reached out to Chapman's, a national ice cream brand that has a factory in the area. According to Dr. Ian Arra, the medical officer of health and the chief executive order of the Grey Bruce Health Unit, the health department and the ice cream factory collaborated to purchase two ultra-cold freezers that could be used for vaccine storage.

"We have two freezers arriving this week, I believe they are clearing customs today," said Arra. "The key to this is to move as fast as we can to have our ducks in a row, and one of those ducks is going to be freezers."

There has also been interest in how the ice cream companies keep their products cold in distribution.

"(Chapman's) has expertise in handling dry ice that our nurses don't," said Arra. "Safety is paramount. It wouldn't be a success to deliver the vaccine to everybody but lose some fingers to frostbite because the nurses were untrained. The ice cream business has staff that are trained in handling ice, and they are willing to provide training to our staff."

Arra added that Chapman's has been willing to help them distribute the vaccines with their fleet of trucks and cargo planes, all of which are kept at cold temperatures. Jones said that there has been similar interest in the Dippin' Dots distribution chain.

"There has been a lot of interest in our logistics chain, you know, our handling of dry ice and shipping the products on dry ice," Jones said. "We've done it for 32 years, so it's not a new thing, and it's very doable."