Finding Canada's 'cold chain': How domestic industry can help with COVID-19 vaccine distribution

Ontario companies are stepping up with solutions that could help make sure the "cold chain" is in place when it comes time to distributing COVID-19 vaccines.

Danby appliances in Guelph sped up plans to produce a very cold freezer

Danby Appliances in Guelph says it could produce to help ship COVID-19 vaccinations around the country if needed. (Submitted by Jim Estill/Danby)

Ontario companies are stepping up with solutions which could help make sure the "cold chain" is in place when it comes time to distributing COVID-19 vaccines.

"I believe these might be needed for [the] vaccine and if they're not needed then great, but it is right in our wheelhouse," Jim Estill, chief executive officer of Danby Appliances in Guelph, told CBC News.

Danby manufactures half a million freezers every year, and while it has never produced a freezer capable of reaching 70 C, it was already on its drawing board. 

Jim Estill, president and CEO of Danby Appliances in Guelph, says that they accelerated plans for a super cold freezer after hearing about the potential need for them in the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

"We should totally contribute what we can to this cause," Estill said.

While the rollout plan for COVID-19 vaccines in Canada is still largely a mystery, what's known is that some of those vaccines will have to be kept in very cold temperatures.

Vaccines — like the one being developed by Moderna — require storage at 20 degrees C, and the vaccine being developed at the University of Oxford needs to be stored just above zero. 

Pfizer reported preliminary findings of its phase 3 trials last month, and while the news was celebrated, the fact that it needed to be stored at 70 C presented an immediate challenge.

I honestly don't know what the demand will be. I don't know whether we're going to make 1,000 or 10,000.- Jim Estill


"When we first heard about it two or three weeks ago, [we] just put pedal to the metal and released them to the market," Estill said.

As far as production goes, Estill said that because the freezers are specialized and would require installation, the company would likely need to bring more people on. The freezers would range in price from $10,000 to $20,000, and it would take about five months to manufacture and ready them for distribution.

"I honestly don't know what the demand will be. I don't know whether we're going to make 1,000 or 10,000," Estill said.

Industry on stand by

Canadian industries pulled together at the onset of the pandemic when a call went out for ventilators and personal protective equipment, as well as hand sanitizer to help fill shortages. 

Assisting in that effort were several member companies of the Automotive Parts Manufacturers Association who helped by making face shields and components for ventilators. They are ready to lend another hand if called upon in the effort to distribute vaccines.

"We're all reading the news in real time, including both levels of government," said Flavio Volpe, APMA president. 

Volpe said that he is in touch with the provincial and federal governments and should know by mid- to late-December how they can help.

Flavio Volpe, president of the Automotive Parts Manufacturing Association, says that companies are ready to step up and help produce parts for freezers as they did when the call went out for PPE and ventilators in the spring. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

"What we're doing is we're doing the due diligence to know, number one: are the products we make or could retool to make can be helpful? I think the first answer is yes. And number two: can we do them at the scale in a production schedule that makes a dent?"

Volpe said that companies which are able to ramp up production at the beginning of the new year would be more helpful than those that could get up and running by the summer.

Volpe said Ontario auto parts makers do about $100 million worth of shipments in a day, and when it added medical supplies, that only created another three or four days worth of shipments in total. Therefore, he says, capacity is not an issue.

"It's really a function of, do you have floor space and do you have time in the schedule," Volpe said. 

The answer from an operational standpoint is always a yes, and then the deeper dive is: what about the raw materials. ​​​​​- Flavio Volpe

He said companies can bring on a third shift to help ramp up production, and as far as space, he cites one company that began making masks dedicated about five per cent of its floor space to that project, which wasn't an issue at all.

"You're talking about an industry that employs 100,000 people ... not a problem," he said.

Volpe also pointed toward other solutions to make shipments, such as creating Styrofoam cooler-like containers used by couriers and short-haul delivery companies, as well as an already existing "cold chain" in Canada, the one used to ship bovine semen, which keeps the product at cold temperatures using cast metal containers with liquid nitrogen to transport it. 

He said the challenge is getting enough materials to build the solutions.

 "The answer from an operational standpoint is always a yes, and then the deeper dive is: what about the raw materials?" Volpe said. 


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