In preparation for what's going to be an unprecedented quick rollout of a vaccine that nearly everyone in the country will want, healthcare organizations around the Bay Area are purchasing low-temperature freezers that are capable of storing the coronavirus vaccine being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech.

Unlike other vaccines, this one requires storage unit facilities maintained at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit (or -70C), which is a temperature most freezers at community hospitals and clinics can't reach.

As the Chronicle reports, pharmacists at the Bay Area's big hospitals first learned about this detail in August, during a meeting in which Pfizer's vaccine was discussed as being on the fastest track to approval. And earlier this week we learned from an preliminary report on the third phase of the vaccine trial that the vaccine appears to be 90-percent effective at preventing COVID-19 — an effectiveness rate that wasn't dreamed of by experts in the field, and which still must be peer-reviewed.

The double-blind study reached its conclusion using 43,538 participants, and did not find any adverse effects — leading to speculation that the vaccine could have FDA approval by the end of the year.

Ryan Stice, who oversees Sutter Health's pharmacy services, tells the Chronicle that he spent the last two months sourcing and purchasing a dozen large freezers capable of storing 30,000 vaccine doses — each at a cost of $10,000. And Sutter also purchased three portable freezers at $8,000 apiece, which can hold 12,000 doses each and be used for transporting the vaccine between hospital and clinic locations.

The need for these expensive freezers, which can reach temperatures of minus 112 degrees Fahrenheit, highlights just one logistical and financial issue that will face healthcare organizations around the country as the vaccine is rolled out — and may lead to poorer communities having less access to it.

Not all the vaccines in development contain the same level of sensitive genetic material that needs such cold storage, as the Chronicle explains. Reportedly, one of the first vaccines we learned about starting clinical trials back in the spring, from Massachusetts-based firm Moderna, only requires storage at minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit.

This "cold chain infrastructure" for the earliest batches of vaccine from Pfizer may only be necessary until other vaccines get approval. As we've been hearing this week, healthcare workers — especially those treating COVID-19 patients — will be part of the first wave of Americans to receive the vaccine, but it's unclear who will be next in line, or how long a full rollout will take.

"Today is a great day for science and humanity," said Dr. Albert Bourla, Pfizer Chairman and CEO, in Sunday's press release. "We are reaching this critical milestone in our vaccine development program at a time when the world needs it most with infection rates setting new records, hospitals nearing over-capacity and economies struggling to reopen... We look forward to sharing additional efficacy and safety data generated from thousands of participants in the coming weeks."

Photo: CDC