Expect delays getting special freezers for COVID-19 vaccine, says Ottawa distributor

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An Ottawa-based retailer of lab equipment says global demand for ultra-cold freezers needed to store one of the COVID-19 vaccine contenders could mean Canada won't get access to the specialized equipment until well into 2021.

Molly Stopford, director of sales for Canadawide Scientific, said the company has already placed hundreds of orders for the special freezers on behalf of its government and private-sector customers, but expects hundreds more if Health Canada approves the Pfizer vaccine.

"There is a decent supply across the country, but that would be for normal usage, so as [demand] increases there's going to be back order issues," she said.

If it were just Canada looking for them then it probably wouldn't be a problem, but we also are competing with the U.S. and Europe and Asia. - Molly Stopford, Canadawide Scientific

Pfizer's RNA vaccine, which the company says may be available in the United States next month, requires temperatures as low as –70 C for proper storage. The AstraZeneca vaccine, another promising contender, can be stored between 2 C and 8 C, while the Moderna vaccine can be stored in a regular freezer for up to 30 days.

The Trudeau government said Canada could begin to receive COVID-19 vaccines by January, pending approval.

But as vaccine development speeds ahead, Stopford said freezer manufacturers are already warning customers to expect delays.

"You're pretty much past the deadline if you're looking for ... multi-unit orders [this year]," she said.

Typical shipping time is 3 months

Normally, it takes about three months to ship a container of 40 ultra-cold freezers from Asia to Canada. But with global demand, Stopford expects that wait to increase.

"If it were just Canada looking for them then it probably wouldn't be a problem, but we also are competing with the U.S. and Europe and Asia," she said.

Governments at all levels in Canada have approached Stopford's company to either buy freezers or inquire about pricing, she said. Hundreds of orders have already been placed, including orders for smaller units that could be used in a hospital or pharmacy.

Virginia Mayo/Associated Press
Virginia Mayo/Associated Press

Last week, a spokesperson for Public Services and Procurement Canada said it's already ordered 26 –80 C freezers and 100 –20 C units. Overall, the federal government has secured freezer capacity for approximately 33.5 million ultra-frozen (–80 C) and frozen (–20 C) vaccines.

The vaccines that require ultra-low temperatures can be shipped long distances on dry ice, said Stopford.

Ontario said the province is relying on its vaccine distribution task force to make recommendations on specific storage requirements, while Ottawa Public Health said it will take cues from the province on vaccine distribution and storage, but added it believes the city is "months away" from a vaccine campaign.

Typical ultra-low freezers that can store about 20,000 vaccine doses, are about the size of a large kitchen fridge and are typically sold for between $8,000 to $20,000, said Stopford.