1st doses of Pfizer vaccine could arrive in Bay Area this month

The first doses of Pfizer COVID vaccine could arrive in the Bay Area this month if the FDA approves emergency distribution.

In Marin County, three institutions are stepping up to store the doses at extremely cold temperatures. 

"We're used to keeping thousands of biological samples at very low temperatures," said Gordon Lithgow, professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato. "Human cells, mouse cells, molecules, proteins. We can clean a few of these freezers out and donate them to the program."

Refrigerators found in most hospitals or pharmacies are not cold enough to store the Pfizer vaccine, which is given in two doses, two weeks apart.

"The cold stops the biological processes and keeps the material from degrading, " explained Lithgow.

With thousands of early doses intended for Marin County health care workers and assisted living facilities, the Public Health Department began casting about for freezers that can plunge below -100 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Generally the temperature in your home freezer is minus 20," said Ben Schooler, director of Lab Operations at BioMarin, which has campuses in Novato and San Rafael.

BioMarin develops and manufactures drugs for rare diseases, and plans to contribute a few freezers to the vaccine effort as well.

"These are colder than any temperature in the continental United States," said Schooler.

Being able to store the vaccine in Marin County will help ease distribution to an estimated 10,000 people first in line- and others to follow if willing.

Scientists say trust and transparency are key.

"Be open and honest with the community so everyone understands why you're doing what you're doing, that is always critically important," said Schooler.

Dominican University in San Rafael is a third institution, offering up free freezer space.

It's normally used for specimens for biology and chemistry research.

"We're still waiting to get the specs on how big the boxes and vials are going to be," said Marly Norris, Vice-President and COVID-19 Lead at the private university.

Dominican gives everyone on campus a weekly saliva test for Covid19.

Administrators hope the upcoming vaccine launch can also give nursing students valuable experience, helping to immunize people. 

"Our students are struggling to get their clinical hours because many environments they might be assigned aren't welcoming students right now so it's helpful for them to have that direct patient care," said Norris. 

Because the Buck Institute specializes in research on aging, immunologists there are keenly interested in how well Covid19 vaccines work in older people, who tend to have a reduced response to vaccines generally.

"And the worst aspects of the disease occur in the elderly so we want to understand that," said Lithgow.

While there may be some wariness as vaccines are introduced, scientists are optimistic.

"Obviously, there will be some people that we won't be able to reach for awhile but that was the case before COVID," said Lithgow. "But with more data, more studies, more reports, more success, people will trust it."

And Lithgow says people need only think back to the dread diseases 100 years ago, incurable before vaccines eradicated them.

"I'm actually stunned at how quickly we've moved to the point of having this conversation so it puts science in a good light."

California is expecting more than 300,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine by mid-December, which will then be allocated among individual counties.

In the meantime, some freezers are waiting to be cleaned-out for a higher purpose. 

"Just like your fridge at home, you rearrange things occasionally, throw out what you don't need, so we're doing a bit of that," smiled Lithgow.

Debora Villalon is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Debora at debora.villalon@foxtv.com and follow her on Twitter@DeboraKTVU