Panasonic has received a deluge of requests from European and US logistics companies to trial an ultra-cold freezer box it has developed for the transportation of Covid-19 vaccines, the Japanese group said.
The Tesla supplier’s entry into the race to develop products for the fast-growing global vaccine storage business comes as the Japanese government prepares to roll out its Covid-19 inoculation programme from late February. Public criticism is mounting in Japan over the slow pace of the scheme.
“There is a serious shortage of freezer boxes even as the vaccine rollout has started globally,” Shinya Kojima, chief engineer at Panasonic’s appliance unit, said in an interview. “We’ve already received so many inquiries from all over the world including Japan, the US, Singapore, France, South Korea and China.”
Mr Kojima adapted Panasonic’s technology for conserving energy in refrigerators to develop a portable box that can be used to transport vaccines and other materials at a temperature of minus 70C.
Of the two types of boxes, the larger 120-litre box is capable of storing 5,000 vaccine doses at the ultra-cold temperature for 18 days by packing it with 34kg of dry ice.
The company had already made a similar product in 2019 but Mr Kojima launched a new project in December to improve storage conditions to fit the unique requirements of the Covid-19 vaccines under development.
With the upgrades, the boxes can now be used to store the vaccine developed by Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech, which must be transported at minus 70C. Last week, the Japanese government secured a deal with the US pharmaceutical company for 144m doses of its shot, enough to inoculate about half of the country’s population.
Panasonic plans to distribute samples of its boxes, called Vixell, to pharmaceutical and logistics companies from the end of March. It will begin selling or leasing them shortly afterwards.
The group has not disclosed pricing and production plans for the boxes, but Mr Kojima said it would start producing several thousand per year and boost its capacity depending on demand.
Shares in Panasonic have risen 8.4 per cent since the company unveiled the technology on Thursday, underscoring strong investor interest in the growth potential of the vaccine storage business.
With the scale Panasonic is considering, the storage boxes are unlikely to have a big impact on its earnings in the short term. But it has a long history in refrigeration and freezing technology as well as a minority stake in PHC Holdings, its former healthcare unit and a big participant in vaccine storage that is now controlled by private equity group KKR.
The global market for vaccine storage and packaging business is expected to grow from $22.3bn last year to $43.3bn by 2027 with storage accounting for the largest revenue, according to US-based market research firm Grand View Research. Other key players in the medical freezer market include Thermo Fisher Scientific of the US and Chinese appliance maker Haier.
Beyond vaccines, Mr Kojima also said the boxes could be used to store other medical drugs as well as semiconductor materials that required stringent temperature control. “We will study the market reaction and consider how to expand this business,” he said.