Sub-Zero Freezers and Dry Ice Are a Complication for COVID-19 Vaccine

(Noted News) — Pfizer and BioNTech’s COVID-19 vaccine has one catch: it requires enormous amounts of dry ice and industrial-strength freezers to store it at -94°F (-70° C). 

Dean Hensler, vice president of So-Low Environmental Equipment, one of the few companies able to produce and sell these types of freezers, told CNBC last week about the “absolutely crazy” state of demand from Pfizer. 

“We had heard that the Pfizer [vaccine] was going to have to be stored at minus 70. We took it upon ourselves to say, ‘Hey, listen, we’ve got to do something about this.’”

Hensler said that the media-induced anticipation of a vaccine ramped up demand for the freezers from hospitals who plan on storing the 100 million doses expected to be produced for the U.S. With Pfizer potentially getting FDA approval for the vaccine as early as this month, So-Low is under a lot of pressure.

“Our phones started ringing off the hook the day it … got out to the public. That inventory we had built was gone like in three weeks so now we’re building everything per order. We’re running about six to eight weeks on delivery right now. It’s been crazy. It’s absolutely been crazy…. Right now, we are out of everything.”

The Cincinnati-based company is working 6 days a week, plus overtime to meet the demand.

“The quicker we can get freezers out, the more people can get vaccinated and we can kind of get back to the old normal, rather than this new normal.”

These freezers can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000, a significant cost burden for already pressed healthcare facilities. Many rural hospitals simply can’t afford them, and the CDC has already advised some state health departments against buying them altogether, telling them to wait until a more temperature resilient vaccine is made. 

The freezers are only part of the battle though. To be able to transport them on trucks to be stored, the vaccines will need to stay very cold, which requires the production of millions of pounds of dry ice. 

American shipping giant UPS announced that it would begin producing 1,200 pounds of dry ice per hour to give healthcare facilities all across North America the means to store the vaccine. 

Wes Wheeler, president of UPS Healthcare, said that they would be producing the dry ice in two states and one Canadian province. 

“Enhancing our dry ice production capabilities increases our supply chain agility and reliability immensely when it comes to handling complex vaccines for our customers. Healthcare facilities in Louisville, Dallas, and Ontario will ensure we have the capability to produce dry ice to sufficiently pack and replenish shipments as needed to keep products viable and effective.”

UPS also announced a partnership with freezer company Stirling Ultracold to produce more of their Stirling ULT25 and Undercounter Model SU105 freezers for vaccine storage.

“We are truly proud to partner with UPS in this critical effort.  As the leading manufacturer of small and portable ULT devices, Stirling Ultracold freezers integrate well with UPS Healthcare logistics to provide complete cold-chain of custody for COVID-19 vaccines from the drug manufacturers to medical facilities,” said Dusty Tenney, CEO of Stirling.

According to Stirling, the initial purchase of an ultracold freezer is only about 28% of the cost of owning one. Another 39% of the cost is energy consumption, 11% is floor space cost, 11% is the cost of HVAC, and an additional 11% goes to replacing the compressor. 

This means that we can reasonably estimate that the total cost for health care centers to own one of these freezers is in the $35-40,000 range, something impossible or very difficult for many facilities. 

This puts additional demand and optimism for vaccines in development that don’t require the ultra-cold freezers, such as the one being developed by Moderna, which instead of needing to be stored at -94°F, can be stored at -4°F, which is closer to a regular freezer. 

It may eventually be shown that Pfizer’s vaccine can end up being stored in warmer conditions, or be modified to survive out of the freezer for longer periods, but right now, health care providers, especially the lesser equipped ones, face the dilemma of either spending the money on freezers or waiting for Moderna’s vaccine. 

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