Cold storage solutions have been getting more media coverage than usual in recent months. With COVID-19 vaccination programs rolling out, there is much discussion around the storage requirements of various vaccine doses and the logistics behind ensuring they are safely maintained and transported prior to being administered.
Of course, cold storage solutions—from primitive ice houses to ultra-low temperature freezers—have been essential to humans for centuries. They now play a huge role in a range of industries, including food, pharmaceutical, and medical. For example, cold storage is required for storing embryos, blood, plasma, research materials such as RNA, DNA, enzymes, reagents, and more.
With so many important applications, it’s crucial to consider the impact when these systems are compromised. Cold storage security is a hot topic with many and varied solutions. As noted by Josh Lewis, a senior product manager at Thermo Fisher Scientific, “The term ‘security’ is more than just the physical access security of the cold storage device. It is also the protection of the equipment from an operational settings and remote monitoring perspective.”
On the one hand, there are physical access concerns such as those surrounding tampering or theft. But you also need to safeguard the integrity of the contents. Allowing samples, drugs, and other cold storage contents to go above or below a certain temperature can render them useless.
To keep the contents of cold storage systems safe, there are a number of security features available, including backup systems, alarms, remote monitoring, and access codes.
Why cold storage security is important
Cold storage security is vital for several core reasons, including ensuring the stability of stored samples and protecting contents against physical access by unauthorized parties.
Aaron Stout, director of sales, Healthcare and Life Sciences at Follett and Vector Lab Products, explains that security is important in ensuring consistent experimental outcomes. For example, incorrectly stored reagents or cell lines could lead to reduced viability or varied results. Aside from hampering efforts to achieve accurate results, inadequate storage can extend project times and increase costs.
Although financial losses are important, there is intangible value in some of the contents of cold storage systems. As Lewis points out, “the monetary value of the contents can’t begin to describe the pricelessness of the time and life’s work which the contents represent.”
One specific example Stout provides is the storage of human fetal material. Inappropriate storage within in vitro fertilization laboratories has led to loss and legal action. He also notes the storage of vaccines as a relevant current example. Some COVID-19 vaccine doses require storage at temperatures as low as -80°C. Inconsistent or inappropriate storage can lead to spoilage, delays, shortages, and financial losses.
Then there are the physical access risks. In December 2020, Interpol warned about potential criminal activity related to the theft of COVID-19 vaccines. Stout notes that physical security is also particularly important when you consider the storage of narcotic drugs and other substances of abuse. He mentions cannabis growth chambers and storage areas as cause for concern.
According to Lewis, another important factor to consider is the required security protocols—for example, GMP (good manufacturing practices). These will depend on which quality departments or agencies a business needs to comply with, such as the FDA. Lewis explains that these protocols pertain to both physical security mechanisms and the logging of access to ensure traceable audit trails for the equipment and ultimately the contents stored within.
Security options available for cold storage solutions
There are two main aspects to cold storage security: controlling physical access to contents and ensuring contents remain at the right temperature.
When it comes to temperature control, a backup system is arguably the most important component. Stout explains that liquid nitrogen or carbon dioxide backup systems on -80°C storage devices can ensure temperatures don’t rise above critical levels during an energy interruption or mechanical breakdown. Power backup systems can help avoid outages and voltage boost or buck systems can circumvent voltage spikes or drops that may cause downtime or mechanical damage.
To safeguard operational settings, Lewis suggests protecting with a password or passcode. He also notes the importance of remote monitoring, such as remote alarm contacts or temperature outputs.
“In addition to the standard configuration, premium cold storage solutions should also make customizable options available like HID key card access, advanced user interface options with profile/role types for different authorization levels, and even built-in connectivity solutions to enable cloud-based monitoring from anywhere in the world,” Lewis says.
Indeed, Stout emphasizes the importance of a robust alarm monitoring system where parameters such as temperature, alarms, door openings, and mechanical viability are consistently monitored. These systems are even more effective if they can be monitored remotely—for example, through push notifications on your smartphone. As Lewis notes, “data at your fingertips allows for peace of mind once you physically leave the lab.”
For protection against tampering and theft, secure access codes or key cards are popular options. Some systems take advantage of technological advances such as using biometric authentication. Each of these has its potential downsides—for example, a code can be cracked in a brute force attack and there are methods to dupe facial recognition and fingerprint technology, but they are certainly better than no protection at all.