It is not often that a piece of scientific equipment from BIOS’s research vessel (R/V) Atlantic Explorer gets the opportunity to help the broader community in Bermuda. But that is just what happened to an ultra-low temperature (ULT) freezer as the island prepared to receive and administer the newly developed COVID-19 vaccine.
In early January, the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine arrived in Bermuda from two sources: the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) of the United Kingdom; and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance Geneva, co-leader of the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access Facility.
The FCDO’s supply of 9,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine required the Bermuda Ministry of Health to find cold storage that could maintain a temperature of -94°F (-70°C), well below the refrigeration temperatures of 36 to 46°F (2 to 8°C) required by many other vaccines, such as those used to prevent influenza, hepatitis A and B, and measles, mumps, and rubella.
While the Bermuda Government placed an order for ULT freezer units as soon as delivery of the Pfizer vaccine was confirmed, they also began to develop backup plans in case delivery was delayed, the power supply to a unit was interrupted, or the “cold chain” required by the vaccines was otherwise compromised. This backup plan included reaching out to BIOS, whose scientists use ULT freezers in labs and aboard the R/V Atlantic Explorer to store a variety of samples, from coral tissues to seawater for chemical and genomic analyses.
“We are pleased to help support the Ministry of Health in its efforts to offer the COVID-19 vaccine to Bermuda’s residents,” said Bill Curry, president and CEO of BIOS.
BIOS marine superintendent Quentin Lewis identified a spare ULT freezer on the ship that could be loaned to the Bermuda Government. The unit, which is slightly smaller than a traditional single-door refrigerator with the freezer on the top, has 10 cubic feet of storage space inside and can be set to a temperature of -112°F (-80°C). After defrosting it and removing it from the ship, the ULT freezer was picked up from BIOS on the afternoon of December 17.
The ULT freezer represents BIOS’s most recent contribution to the island’s ongoing efforts to manage the COVID-19 pandemic. In early 2020, the Institute was one of many local organizations that stepped up to provide equipment and expertise required by healthcare workers, the Bermuda Government, and private companies to facilitate accurate testing and treatment of COVID-19.
In mid-March 2020, microbiologist Rachel Parsons, manager of the BIOS Microbial Ecology Laboratory, began working at Helix Bermuda, a private lab operated by Dr. Desiree Spriggs that is one of two COVID-19 testing facilities on the island. There, Parsons ran the PCR instrument used to test samples for the presence of the COVID-19 virus. She continued working in a full-time capacity until mid-June, when the government contract ended, and still returns when needed to help process samples following large events, such as the World Tens Series rugby finals and the PGA Bermuda Championship golf tournament, which both took place in October 2020. BIOS associate scientist Leocadio Blanco-Bercial also worked at Helix from late March to early June running samples through the PCR instrument and assisting with data analysis, validating results, and reporting to the U.K. Public Health agency.
“Our scientists have diverse skill sets that enable them to work in advanced laboratory settings, including medical laboratories,” Curry said. “BIOS values being a member of the Bermuda community and we feel that it is important to give back when and how we are able. Over the last year, this has meant providing scientific equipment and expertise to support the island’s healthcare system. We’ve been happy to do so.”