Demand high for ultra-low freezers needed for COVID-19 vaccines, Mass. based company says


WALTHAM, Mass. (WPRI) — As U.S. federal regulators are poised to grant emergency use approval to two COVID-19 vaccines this month, work has been underway for months to prepare for its eventual distribution.

General Manager for Cold Storage at Thermo Fisher Scientific, one of the world’s leading manufacturers of ultra-low temperature freezers (ULT), Dr. Alex Esmon said the company’s global mission is to make the world a healthier and cleaner place, and no time has been more important than now.

Esmon notes the freezers have been around for decades, but are more typically used for scientific and medical research.

“Just now, they really pivoted to be required for vaccine storage,” Esmon said. “These new mRNA vaccines require these temperatures for the biology of those vaccines, and so we are here to support that,” he added.

The ULT freezers store samples at -80 degrees Celsius, or -112 degrees Fahrenheit and Pfizer says its vaccine needs to be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit.

According to Pfizer’s COVID-19 Vaccine U.S. Distribution Fact Sheet, once a point of use receives a thermal shipper with its vaccine, they have three options for storage:

  • Ultra-low-temperature freezers, which are commercially available and can extend shelf life for up to six months.
  • The Pfizer thermal shippers, in which doses will arrive, can be used as temporary storage units by refilling with dry ice every five days for up to 30 days of storage.
  • Refrigeration units that are commonly available in hospitals. The vaccine can be stored for five days at refrigerated conditions of 2 to 8 degrees celsius.

“There are very few vaccines that are managed in a frozen state, and up to now, there has been only one example historically of a vaccine that was managed at ultra-low temperatures, and that was Ebola,” Esmon said.

Esmon could not say how many freezers the company is producing per day, but noted the demand is “two to three times” what it would normally be, and suggested that could continue for “at least the next few quarters.”

He said Thermo Fisher is prepared to meet “a large portion of that demand.”

“We are working closely with our operational and our supply chain and logistics partners to ensure that we are ready at all of our locations globally, and we’re working with our partners to make sure that they’re prepared as well,” Emson added.

Thermo Fisher has already been shipping freezers to every state in the country, according to Esmon.

“When we first learned and really understood the scope and scale of the vaccines that were going to be coming, we adjusted our planning,” Esmon said. “We adjusted our operational approach. We adjusted how we were going to look at this year and the years to come.”

Esmon could not speak to specific arrangements in each state, though he noted the company has “provided units into both public and private sector businesses and healthcare partners that are supporting COVID response.”

In an interim draft vaccination plan submitted to federal regulators in October, the Baker administration said the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s Vaccine Unit was buying an ultracold storage unit.

The plan stated the Vaccine Unit also reached out to a refrigeration vendor that could be contracted if needed for large capacity ultra-cold storage.

Rhode Island’s COVID-19 vaccination plan, also in its interim draft form, noted the R.I. Department of Health’s Mass Vaccination Workgroup assessed the availability and capacity of ultra-low cold storage in Rhode Island and found few hospitals and universities in the state currently have the capacity for the ultra-low cold storage.

The plan noted the workgroup would “continue to explore the feasibility of contracting with these, and other partners, to expand ultra-cold storage capacity and dry ice manufacturing to support vaccines that will require this type of cold chain.”

Last month, Pfizer announced the launch of a U.S. COVID-19 Immunization Pilot Program with four states to help refine a plan for the delivery, deployment, and administration of its COVID-19 vaccine candidate.

Rhode Island was chosen along with Texas, New Mexico, and Tennessee due to their differences in size, population, and immunization infrastructure.

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