Ultra-Low Freezer Industry Demand Exploded
When the COVID-19 pandemic was moved into the mainstream of global society, the research and scale-up of mRNA vaccines illustrated an impressive response based on an existing infrastructure throughout the life science community. Directing this response were major international health organizations marshaling the resources of a robust pharmaceutical industry already at work on a new generation of vaccines.
Vaccine storage has always been a matter of temperature uniformity and stability in commercial refrigeration systems. As new mRNA vaccines requiring non-traditional low temperatures for vaccines were placed onto the market at the height of the pandemic, the demand for ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezers set off a struggle between supply and demand that continues somewhat to this day. In the ultra-low freezer industry, it was chaos.
According to Piper Mullins, President of the International Society of Biological and Environmental Repositories (ISBER), the pandemic triggered a strong and immediate reaction from the industry’s primary collective organization.
“We know that the development of new mRNA vaccines and the need for wide distribution put enormous pressure on the ultra-low freezer and biorepository industry,” said Mullins. “It introduced ultra-low freezer technology to many who may not have considered this need before. Many cold chain issues occur in the ‘last mile’ of vaccine distribution, with samples lost due to improperly handled freezers.”
“ISBER offered our shared expertise in cold chain management to educate new users of ultra-low temperature freezers as part of COVID-19 vaccine distribution programs via our position statement for management and use of ultra-low temperature freezers.”
Mullins emphasized that these guidelines, which remain in force today, draw on accepted practices that ensure robust ULT product storage and distribution routinely used by biorepositories and represents a consensus view from the biobanking community.
The long-term implications on the ultra-low freezer market are emerging. Trends in the ultra-low freezer industry are measured in terms of unit sales, product type and orientation (upright vs. chest), operating temperature range and price. It is clear that the demand for ultra-low freezers hit the industry with a blow that stressed resources in raw materials, manufacturing throughput, labor, logistics, transportation and last-mile delivery to facilities unfamiliar with the nuances of ultra-low storage. There are, however, no reliable estimates for the worldwide demand for ultra-low freezers. Most companies prefer to keep their projections under wraps.
“The pandemic set the ultra-low freezer industry into a mild panic as demand exploded,” said Brok. “Many customers had no idea what a -80°C freezer was in the first place. Moderna and Pfizer were pushing us. Logistic companies were ordering 500 to 1000 ultra-low freezers at a time, all to be delivered ASAP. There was also confusion about storage temperatures, so we had to educate new customers.”