Demand for medical freezers jumps on positive COVID-19 vaccine data

News about the development of a vaccine that early data suggests may be 90 per cent effective against COVID-19 has led to a jump in demand for ultra-low temperature freezers.

More units able to cool down to -70 C would be needed if Pfizer vaccine approved

Pfizer and BioNTech announced Monday that their vaccine candidate against COVID-19 has shown promising preliminary results in Phase 3 clinical trials. (Dado Ruvic/Reuters)

Suddenly there's a very hot market for ultra-cold medical freezers. 

Monday's news that a COVID-19 vaccine co-developed by Pfizer has shown promising results included the revaluation that depending on how quickly it can reach the point of use, the vaccine may need to be stored in ultra-cold freezers capable of temperatures in the -70 C range. 

Paul Greco is the president of 360 Medical located in Schomberg, Ont., about 60 kilometres north of Toronto. His company sells and manufactures ultra-cold freezers for the medical market. 

"We've definitely seen a major spike in inquiries," said Greco. "Calls about pricing, and what we have available."

Freezers that can keep contents that cold are fairly common in the medical field. One industry representative estimated there may be as many as 100 units in London, Ont., alone with units in use at hospitals, medical labs and at Western University. 

'A very niche market'

But Greco said most of the ultra-cold freezer units he sells are used in pathology to store tissue samples. The need to keep a vaccine colder than -20 C is something he hasn't seen before. 

"We expect this to be a global demand," he said. "There's only a couple of centres globally that manufacture ultra lows. It's a very niche market. Only a few thousand units in Canada a year." 

He said an ultra-cold freezer 100 litres in size — about half the size of a typical kitchen fridge — should be able to hold about 20,000 vaccine doses.

However, Greco said it's unlikely ultra-low freezers already in service will be able to meet the storage need if the vaccine is approved.

"There's always a challenge finding space in ultra-lows," said Greco "They're very expensive units, typically about $15,000 and storage space inside is always limited. We're finding that a lot of the labs that we work with, they're at capacity already. So there's going to be a demand for new units."

The need for ultra-low temperature storage could make distribution tricky, particularly in rural areas. 

"It's not just a matter of popping it into a freezer at your doctor's office," said Dr. Raj Bhardwaj, who regularly comments on medical issues for CBC. "The logistics of manufacturing it, distributing it ... it's going to be a lot more expensive and logistically difficult than other vaccines." 

In a statement to CBC News, Pfizer said it's working with federal and provincial governments in Canada to work out distribution logistics. 

"For Canada, our distribution approach will be to largely ship from our manufacturing sites direct to the point of use," the statement says. The vaccine is among seven that Canada has pre-ordered.

Included in Pfizer's plans is a "just in time" delivery system with built-in temperature control, including special containers that use dry ice to keep the vaccine doses at the correct temperature for up to 15 days in transport. 

The company says it will also use GPS-enabled thermal sensors with each shipment so the vaccine can be tracked and its temperature monitored while in transit.

Once the vaccine arrives at the point of use, Pfizer's recommended storage options include:

  • An ultra-low freezer up until the end of the labelled shelf life (six months). 
  • Pfizer thermal shippers up to 15 days, so long as dry ice is refilled. 
  • A typical refrigerator, with temperature settings between 2 C and 8 C for up to five days.

Will require 'creative thinking'

Dr. Alex Summers, Middlesex-London Health Unit's associate medical officer of health, agrees the vaccine distribution will present challenges, but says the health unit will work with the Ontario government to address them. 

"We're already participating, or will be shortly, with the province about what the distribution strategies will look like," he said. "This is going to be a very new way of delivering vaccines. It is going to require some creative thinking from across the province in order to get that vaccine out there but that planning is starting shortly." 


Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.