The next big COVID challenge? Keeping vaccines cold


Some are bigger than the fridge in your kitchen. Others are as small as the cooler you lug to the beach.

They’re way colder than the Arctic, in extremely high demand and absolutely essential for getting the first wave of some coronavirus vaccines — “the proverbial light at the end of this very long, dark tunnel,” as Gov. Gavin Newsom said — from the manufacturer into the bodies of those who need protection.

Most of these specialized freezers cost $7,000 to $15,000 each, with the most imposing models topping out at $26,000 — and California governments and health care providers are snapping them up as they lay the complex groundwork for a massive COVID-19 vaccination campaign that, they hope, marks the beginning of the pandemic’s end.

“We’re seeing a very significant surge in orders — a 50 percent increase over January — with very significant backlogs that we’re trying to address,” said Dusty Tenney, CEO of Stirling Ultracold in Ohio, which makes freezers that can keep Pfizer’s vaccine at minus-80 degrees Celsius, an unusually cold temperature for a vaccine, and Moderna’s at a more common minus-20 degrees Celsius.

Pfizer and partner BioNTech submitted a request to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization of their COVID-19 vaccine candidate on Friday, Nov. 20. (Courtesy BioNTech) 

“Every day is a fast-and-furious kind of day. It’s dynamic, it’s energizing and it has a purpose: making sure the vaccines get to where they need to go so they remain viable and have the efficacy the manufacturers are out there touting.”

California and its counties have been quietly working on the daunting logistics of vaccinating some 40 million people since April, lining up vaccine providers, prepping data systems for tracking who gets which shots and when, and designing public information campaigns to ease concern in diverse communities.

They’re wrestling over exactly who, in priority populations, should have priority. They’ve assembled a team of scientists to double-check the FDA’s work when vaccine approvals finally come. And, as of late, they’re grappling with potentially problematic “cold-chain storage” issues, necessitated by the innovative messenger RNA technology used by both Pfizer and Moderna to fuel the fastest vaccine rollout in history.

The two companies say they can produce 70 million doses by the end of the year, with Pfizer responsible for the bulk of that. That should allow states to begin to vaccinate those at highest risk — California, like most states, will start with health workers — but most of us probably won’t get our shots until the middle of next year.

“On paper, California’s plan is very robust,” said Josh Michaud, associate director for global health policy with the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, which examined 47 state vaccine rollout plans. “There’s a structure in place that is quite comprehensive, with multiple task forces of experts looking at multiple areas of vaccine distribution that have been meeting for months already. But California is in the same boat as every other state. It’s not 100% able to make decisions about how this will actually play out because specific vaccines haven’t been approved yet.”

The task looms larger because California is a massive state with a massive and diverse population. It must launch a communications plan that addresses people’s hesitancy about the vaccines — and prepare for those cold-chain issues. “If the Pfizer vaccine is the only game in town for a while, those freezer capabilities will really loom large,” Michaud said.

Cold-chain storage (Courtesy Stirling Ultracold) 

Other vaccines, still at an earlier stage of development and employing a different technology, will not need cold storage when they become available likely in mid-2021.

Richard Carpiano, a public health scientist and medical sociologist at UC Riverside, was duly impressed with the…

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