Maine colleges lend critical research freezers as state mobilizes for historic vaccine rollout

December 11, 2020

UNE, SMCC, Bates and Colby lend ultra-cold freezers needed to store the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer.

Karen Houseknecht opened the email and read what could have been a line from a spy novel.

The state of Maine needed help from the University of New England and the matter had to be kept strictly confidential.

It was Tuesday, Nov. 17, and the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention needed an untold number of ultra-cold freezers by that Friday. An initial shipment of COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer was expected to be delivered to Maine the following Monday and it had to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius (minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit).

Delivery of the first 12,675 Pfizer doses was delayed to next week, at the earliest, but UNE is among several Maine colleges and universities that have responded to the agency’s call to action and loaned the now hard-to-find freezers to the statewide vaccine rollout…

Southern Maine Community College in South Portland offered one of its ultra-cold freezers to the Maine CDC after Shah mentioned the need during a virtual meeting of the Bioscience Association of Maine on Nov. 6.

Listening in was Elizabeth Ehrenfeld, an adjunct science professor who is a member of the trade association that represents the state’s biotech industry. She came to Maine 30 years ago to work for Idexx in Westbrook as a scientist leading the development of diagnostics for food safety.

Today, some of her SMCC students are producing COVID-19 testing products at Idexx and Abbott Laboratories, she said, while others are producing Moderna’s vaccine at Lonza in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Ehrenfeld knew SMCC had two ultra-cold freezers, in its marine science and biotech labs, and neither was filled to capacity. A team including Maine National Guard members picked up one of the freezers on Nov. 20.

“This helps us do our part,” Ehrenfeld said. “We are training the workforce for the biotech industry in Maine. This pandemic is showing the importance of science in our day-to-day lives, specifically microbiology and epidemiology.” More»