By Hiawatha Bray
The Boston Globe
When people need a place to stash frozen pizza, they turn to the appliance aisle at Lowe’s or the Home Depot. But to preserve millions of doses of the new Pfizer COVID-19vaccine, hospitals and clinics are shopping for iceboxes that are more secure, more reliable, and get a whole lot colder.
They’re called ultra-low-temperature, or ULT, freezers. Waltham-based Thermo Fisher Scientific has been making them for decades. But these days the effort has taken on anew urgency. The new vaccine must be stored at about 94 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, far colder than any normal fridge can manage. Hospitals, clinics, and warehouses worldwide will need thousands of these ultra-cold freezers. And Thermo Fisher has surged its output of freezers to meet the demand.
“Our mission here is to enable safe passage and storage of this vaccine,” said Mitch Coyne, Thermo Fisher’s general manager of controlled temperature technologies. “It is like liquid gold.”
Costing $6,000 to $15,000, Thermo Fisher’s machines use the same condensers and standard equipment found in home fridges, except they contain two refrigeration systems linked together to achieve these ultra-low temperatures. Because of their sensitive contents, ULT freezers are built with doors that lock, and a video screen that displays a “fever chart” readout of the inside temperature, which can range between -70 and -80 Centigrade. For Fahrenheit fans, that’s between 94 and 112 below zero. Temperature controls can be locked down with a password to prevent tampering from hackers and saboteurs, and each fridge is connected to a data network that sends an alarm if the box malfunctions.
Thermo Fisher began planning for COVID from the earliest days of the pandemic. For example, the push to ramp up freezer production began early in 2020, as drug companies such as Pfizer and Cambridge-based Moderna said they were designing COVID vaccines that would use bits of messenger RNA or mRNA.
An mRNA vaccine can be designed far faster than a traditional vaccine. But mRNA vaccines decompose very quickly unless they’re kept very cold. The Moderna vaccine can be stored for six months at about 5 below zero, just a little colder than the typical home freezer.
But the Pfizer vaccine is far more demanding. It likes the climate in Antarctica in winter. Thermo Fisher’s Coyne said the decision to use mRNA ensured that hospitals and clinics worldwide would need many more freezers — low-temperature units for the Moderna vaccine and ultra-low for Pfizer. The company also foresaw the need for “freezer farms,” facilities of deep freeze units where shipping companies FedEx and UPS can keep the vaccines cold until they’re shipped out.
So the company began hiring workers and ramping up production. A Thermo Fisher plant in Asheville, N.C., is building freezers around the clock to keep up with demand, and the company also operates plants in Ohio and China.
“We’re looking at about two to three times the demand,” said Alex Esmon, general manager of the cold storage business. “I think we’re going to be able to keep up globally.”
Still, customers will have to wait. Before the crisis, Thermo Fisher could deliver a new freezer in about two weeks. These days, new orders ship in 20 to 30 days.
In the war on COVID, Thermo Fisher is one of the nation’s top arms merchants. The company’s global workforce of 75,000 makes an extraordinary range of scientific products, from diagnostic chemicals to electron microscopes and gene sequencing machines.
“They’ve been able to leverage all these tools to play a major role in helping us deal with COVID,” said Doug Schenkel, a life sciences research analyst at Cowen Inc. in Boston. Schenkel expects COVID-related activities to boost Thermo Fisher revenues by $5 billion in 2020 and a similar amount next year. The company’s third-quarter revenues rose $2.25 billion, to $8.52 billion mainly because of increased demand for COVID-19-relatedproducts.
Mark Stevenson, Thermo Fisher’s chief operating officer, said that about one-third of the company is involved in fighting the virus.
“We estimate that we’ve invested about $1 billion in the COVID response,” Stevenson said.
Thermo Fisher doesn’t break out its cold storage revenues. But Vijay Kumar, a financial analyst from Evercore ISI in New York City, estimates that increased freezer sales will generate several hundred million dollars for the company. A far bigger revenue surge comes from its diagnostics business; Thermo Fisher is producing 20 million COVID-19test kits every week. And it sells chemical compounds and accessories to other test makers.
By next year, Thermo Fisher may also be making vaccines. The company has signed a contract with Pennsylvania-based biotech firm Inovio to mass-produce a vaccine that began Phase II human trials this week and could be approved for general use by the second quarter of 2021.
The Inovio vaccine is based on DNA rather than mRNA. As a result, it can be stored and shipped at room temperature. So while Inovio might need Thermo Fisher’s manufacturing prowess, it won’t need to stock up on freezers.