Due to the presence of an extremely fragile molecule (messenger RNA) in its composition, the anti-Covid-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and the German company BioNTech must be stored at – 70 ° C in so-called “- 80” freezers usually used in research centers or university hospitals to preserve viruses, bacteria or cells. To illustrate the French preparations for vaccination, on November 12, Olivier Véran announced that he had ordered fifty of these “super-freezers”. His cabinet does not wish to give any details on these devices and their distribution on the territory, because “For the moment no vaccine is yet on the market”. However, the Japanese manufacturer PHCbi specifies having sold 50 freezers of 700 liters to Public Health France in October and “Several hundred others very recently” for a unit price which varies between 12,000 euros and 20,000 euros.
This is the first time that a vaccine has required such a temperature, the standard is rather around – 4 ° C. “The Ebola one had to be frozen at – 60 ° C but we were facing a local epidemic. There, we are talking about billions of doses ”, underlines Bruno Pitard, research director at CNRS. The vials can be kept for two weeks in Pfizer’s delivery cases, but beyond that, these freezers are essential. Otherwise, millions of doses and therefore euros will be wasted. Last August, the logistician UPS announced that it had created freezer farms with 600 devices in the United States and the Netherlands. In the aftermath of Pfizer’s announcement, several US states rushed to these freezers although the US federal health agency, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, asked them to wait. Least developed countries are worried about access to immunization because of this logistical challenge.
To meet global demand, in this niche market in which the American Thermo Fisher Scientific and the Japanese PHCbi (formerly a subsidiary of the Panasonic group) are enthroned, small and large manufacturers have all stepped up. Since April and rumors about a vaccine based on messenger RNA, the Japanese factories of the leader PHCbi “Run twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week”, says Alain Faba, its European director. Luxembourg-based B Medical Systems has gone from production of 500 to 3,500 devices per month, with currently a waiting period of two weeks. Should we fear a shortage? « Non, replies its president Luc Provost, even if the global production of the hundred or so players in the sector is just in time, it will be enough to store the 50 million doses that will be available before the end of the year. ” In case a reinforcement is necessary, a Spanish brand even wants to boost its food refrigerators to make them “super-freezers”.
Pfizer’s vaccine, which is expected to be the first to hit the market, is the only one to require freezing of this type. Those from Moderna Therapeutics, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca can be stored at – 20 ° C. Pfizer itself evoked an evolution of its formula from 2021. So why rush to store this ephemeral treatment? “We do not want to close any door”, replies the Ministry of Health. After the mask scandal, the state wants to avoid the fridge at all costs. Once the emergency has passed, what will become of these tens of thousands of devices? For Bruno Pitard, research centers will be able to renew an aging fleet that consumes too much energy. In 2010, Stanford University had estimated the annual energy bill of its 2,000 old freezers at 5.6 million dollars; the latest models would be up to 45% more efficient. Manufacturers, for their part, hope that the development of treatments based on messenger RNA will make these freezers even more essential.