In-demand: Ultra-cold freezers to store COVID-19 vaccine have months-long delivery delays

WARWICK Last year, hospital systems and states were scrambling to find ventilators. This year, ultra-cold freezers to store vaccines are the medical equipment that are hard to find.

The specialty freezers are needed to store vaccines for COVID-19 that have to be kept at ultra-low temperatures, including one manufactured by Pfizer Inc. Because of national demand, the ultra-low freezers from a variety of manufacturers are on back order by as much as three months, according to Cindy Juhas, chief strategy officer for Warwick-based CME Corp., a national distributor of medical equipment.

One of the challenges is that before COVID-19, the ultra-cold freezers were rarely used in health care, she said. Now, they’re needed across the United States, because the vaccine produced by Pfizer has to be kept at minus-70 degrees fahrenheit, and has a shelf-life of less than two days if not.

“They’re between $10,000 and $25,000. They’re expensive,” Juhas said. “So nobody wanted to put a lot of money into these things until they knew that the Pfizer vaccine was going to be the one.”

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Once it became clear the Pfizer vaccine would be the first approved for administration in the U.S., hospital and healthcare systems and states scrambled to purchase more of the specialty units.

CME Corp. saw its demand peak in early January. “People started ordering them in November. We had orders. But then it became panic,” she said.

The three-month backlog on deliveries is because the manufacturers cannot find the parts to manufacture them faster. In addition, transportation has been slowed by winter weather and a national shortage of long-haul truckers. The units have to be delivered by truck, they cannot be flown, she said.

About eight corporations in the U.S. make the ultra-cold freezers needed to store the Pfizer vaccine, she said.

The manufacturers include Thermo Fisher Scientific, of Waltham, Mass., one of CME Corp.’s clients. A request for comment with the medical equipment manufacturer was not immediately returned.

Another national manufacturer of the ultra-low freezers, So-Low Environmental Equipment, of Cincinnati, Ohio, told CNBC it saw a surge of demand for the units by Thanksgiving. Although it started boosting production, in advance of the public understanding of the need to store the vaccine at an ultra-cold temperature, once the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publicly released that information, its phones started ringing off the hook, the vice-president told CNBC.

“The inventory we had built was gone in three weeks,” said Dan Hensler, “So now we’re building everything per order.”

The Moderna Inc. vaccine, the second vaccine approved for emergency use in the U.S., also has to be kept at freezing temperatures, but it doesn’t require an ultra-cold specialty freezer. Still, even those freezer units are delayed, because of demand, Juhas said.

Instead of taking three weeks, orders are now being filled in six to eight weeks, Juhas said.

To combat the lag time, some health care systems are paying extra for faster delivery, once their units are available. Kaiser Permanente, a California-based healthcare company, paid extra for 71 freezers to be delivered over a weekend, Juhas said.

“Everyone wants it yesterday,” she said. “We’re seeing people pay to get them faster.”

Mary MacDonald is a staff writer for the PBN. Contact her at macdonald@pbn.com.

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