By Keith Norbury
Montreal-based Hunt Refrigeration (Canada) Inc. has put in orders for SuperFreezer units that can solve the challenges of storing and transporting leading Covid-19 vaccine candidates. The company has ordered two SuperFreezers, which Hunt Refrigeration Canada President Eric Bedard expects will arrive by about mid November. “And then, as the demand is growing, then we could go as high as 40, 50,100 — whatever the demand is,” Mr. Bedard said. “So we will be listening to the needs, and we will be adjusting to them.”
Made by Minnesota-based Thermo King, the SuperFreezers can maintain temperatures as low as -70C. That’s enough to safely store and transport the BNT162 Covid-19 vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, which would otherwise have to be packed in dry ice to keep sufficiently cold. SuperFreezers can also maintain higher sub-zero temperatures, such as the -20C temperature for the mRNA-1273 Covid-19 vaccine candidate from Moderna.
“It goes as low as -70 but you can also have it at -40, or -30,” Mr. Bedard said.
Once the SuperFreezers arrive in Montreal, the company will take another two weeks to prepare the units, a process that involves packing each into a container with special insulation. The units can fit in containers of various lengths up to 40 feet. “We’re buying them and then we will be doing manufacturing of the rest here in Montreal at our depot,” Mr. Bedard said.
His company has had discussions with major transportation companies about acquiring the units. However, he wasn’t at liberty to name those companies because those discussions are still ongoing. Other potential customers are cold storage warehouses and the vaccine makers themselves, although so far Mr. Bedard hasn’t any talks with the likes of Pfizer. “We want to be part of this solution so it will be ready for when there’s a need for it,” Mr. Bedard said.
Along with Mr. Bedard, Hunt Canada CEO Alan Espey, Vice-President Yanik Espey, and Pat LaVilla, who is responsible for sales, are also behind the project.
Hunt Refrigeration Canada has locations across the country, in Prince Rupert, Calgary, Toronto, Halifax, and Saint-Laurent, Que. In total, it employs about 150 people, most of them skilled tradespeople such as welders, HVAC technicians, and mechanics. Ninety-five percent of Hunt’s business is in the sales and maintenance of refrigerated containers. Aside from Thermo King and its parent company Trane Technologies, Hunt also represents Carrier, Starcool, and Daikin brands.
Most of Hunt Canada’s work is on the marine transport side, including rail. However, Mr. Bedard expects most of the Covid-19 vaccines will likely arrive in Canada by air. Details of how those shipments will be transloaded from aircraft to SuperFreezers still have to be worked out. “We’re just trying to get the right info so we can move on,” Mr. Bedard said. “But we said we’re not going to wait any longer. We’re going to order these units right away. We’re going to get them prepared, and at least we can be participating in that as soon as it’s ready. There’s a need for it.”
While he said, “anything is possible,” Mr. Bedard doubts the vaccines will arrive by ocean vessel. One reason is the huge time difference — weeks on the water versus several hours in the air. Once the vaccines arrive, they will need to be stored in multiple places as they await distribution, and Mr. Bedard envisions SuperFreezers as being that solution. “Our goal is to cover the entire country,” he said. “And where we do not have a physical presence, we’re going to work tightly with the storage facility or the customer to find a suitable vendor that can actually do the maintenance and repair of these units if there is a need. But we can supply from coast to coast. That won’t be a problem for us.”
The SuperFreezer is a proven unit that has been on the market for years, Mr. Bedard said. For example, it’s been used in Europe for storing sashimi-grade tuna as well as ice creams that require ultracold storage. “It’s been proven that they are working at that temperature. We worked on these units, I would say, about eight to nine years ago already.”
Hunt is also working different options for transporting other Covid-19 vaccine candidates that require less extreme temperatures — such as Johnson & Johnson’s Ad26.COV2.S vaccine that can be stored at 2-8C, the optimum temperature for most vaccines.
Thermo King also has a trademarked Magnum Plus unit that maintains box temperatures between -40C and +40C.