Health authorities ask UBC about potential storage of COVID-19 vaccines

Following the approval of the Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines in Canada, BC health authorities may turn to universities to help with vaccine storage.

The University of Victoria’s student newspaper The Martlet reported last month that the institution’s science department is clearing out its freezers to help store the vaccine in case extra space is needed, and now UBC could be doing the same.

Matthew Ramsey, director of university affairs at UBC Media Relations, confirmed to The Ubyssey that BC health agencies have contacted UBC about potentially using campus facilities to store the vaccine. According to Ramsey, UBC is “prepared to assist” upon request, though he was unable to say where on campus the vaccine will be stored due to security reasons.

In a written statement to The Ubyssey, a Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) spokesperson said the organization is considering all possible storage options, including universities, to maximize available space.

It is unclear whether BC health authorities have contacted any other universities besides UBC and UVic. VCH said it was unable to disclose vaccine storage locations.

VCH noted that logistics surrounding the transportation of vaccines to their storage locations are directed by the provincial and federal governments in collaboration with vaccine manufacturers.

A major challenge around transporting and storing both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is the extremely low temperature required for its stability. The vaccines contain messenger RNA, or mRNA, a type of genetic material that is less stable than DNA and needs to be kept at low temperatures to prevent breakdown.

The Pfizer vaccine must stay at around negative 70 degrees Celsius, while Moderna’s must stay at negative 20 degrees Celsius.

Pfizer states on its distribution fact sheet that it utilizes thermal shipping containers with GPS-thermal sensors to track the location and monitor the temperature of vaccine shipments. These shipping containers can store the vaccine for up to 10 days if unopened, or for up to 30 days with dry ice refills.

The vaccine can also be thawed and stored for up to five days in a refrigerator. However, longer term storage requires ultra-cold freezers with temperatures between negative 80 and negative 60 degrees Celsius.

The need for ultra-cold freezers presents an obstacle for vaccine distribution. Ultra-cold freezers are a niche product that are mostly used in the medical field.

“Given the different storage requirements of the various available vaccines, VCH is proactively exploring all options to ensure we have the storage capacity for each vaccine batch that we receive,” VCH said in its statement.