Pfizer submitted the vaccine last Friday for approval and that process could take up to three weeks. If approved, vaccines will start rolling out immediately, but Pfizer’s vaccine needs special care. The vaccine must remain at minus 70 degrees Celsius.
That’s where hospitals like Cedar Sinai in Los Angeles come in.
“As a major research center, we have, we have those needs for that ultra-cold storage to support some of our research projects. So we already had them on site and available,” said Dr. Jeff Smith, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
Each state is identifying hospitals, research labs and other facilities which have these extremely cold freezers to help in the distribution process. The freezers at Cedar Sinai will be able to store between 100-200,000 vaccines.
“So the health department will allocate a specific amount of vaccine, which will be shipped directly to us. We will store that, take it out of the storage containers, which contain dry ice, and put them directly into our freezers, which are in a secure location and also are monitored remotely for to make sure that they stay at the proper temperature, monitored and alarmed,” said Smith.
Pfizer is the only COVID-19 vaccine that requires being kept in a deep freeze. Moderna, which is reportedly going to ask the FDA for emergency use authorization approval in mid-December, needs to be kept at minus 20 degrees Celsius—that is more like a regular freezer. And AstraZeneca’s vaccine can be kept at room temperature.
There is the possibility that one day Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines won’t need to be kept cold. Thanks to researchers like Dr. Robert Williams at the University of Texas-Austin, who redirected his lab to work on COVID-19 related projects last spring. He is working to make these vaccines able to be kept at room temperature.
“Well, we are, we—I view us as a second generation. And so we need the vaccine now, basically, no matter what, right? Any condition, we need the vaccine, but a second generation like to follow on [theirs], that I imagine can be a powder that does not have the substantial cold chain requirement, like the current vaccines have, at least the two leading vaccines. And so I see that as a second generation. And that’s what we are working towards right now,” said Dr. Robert Williams, University of Texas-Austin Professor of Pharmacy.
For now Dr. Williams sees the distribution of three vaccines with three different sets of needs as a challenge, but one that federal, state and local health officials are up to.
“You start getting out to small rural areas, where, you know, the case of the vaccine comes in, and it’s in a dry storage kit that has a shelf life of just a few days, then that the distribution has to be such that the patients are lined up, basically, ready to be vaccinated as that cold vaccine is thawed to room temperature, getting ready to you know, to administer it,” said Williams. “I think it’s a great challenge for our leaders to figure this out. Fortunately, we have choices on vaccines, I hope, in the next couple of months, we may have three different vaccines available. And then that’s a good thing because they all have different requirements.”