After the development of vaccines for COVID – 19, globally appeared the challenge of transporting the pharmaceutical preparation to the patients in the shortest possible time, maintaining the right temperature, at the lowest possible cost. Although the roads for transportation are varied in nature considering their geographical differences, everywhere the main foci were to be kept on speed and seamless temperature control.
It has been observed that the diligent cold chain industry has tackled the highly demanding situation in a very efficient manner. In the sense, this trying situation fostered many innovations in the cold chain industry.
In fact, since the beginning of the year 2020, i.e., even before the development of the vaccine, the situation started becoming demanding for the entire refrigeration segment with the mercilessly fast spread of the corona disease. Perhaps the situation was best explained by Gérald Cavalier – President of the Science and Technology Council of the International Institute of Refrigeration, President of the French Association of Refrigeration and President of the Cemafroid Tecnea Group. Cavalier said, “Since the beginning of the year 2020 and the Covid-19 pandemic which has affected the whole world, refrigeration has been strongly solicited. Essential to produce and distribute oxygen in hospitals, to cool patients’ rooms, to store and distribute medicines and food, and to support the increase of data flows caused by teleworking and lockdown.
Reaching the vaccine to places of inoculation
After the vaccines were produced, the biggest challenge that came up in front of the cold chain stake holders was – that different vaccines needed different temperatures to be preserved and transported without loss of their pharmaceutical quality.
The vaccine made by Pfizer needs to be kept at minus 70 degrees Celsius, whereas Moderna’s preparation demands minus 20 degrees Celsius. Fortunately, the vaccines made in India, i.e., Bharat Biotech’s Covaxin and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s Covishield need to be stored between 2 to 8 degrees Celsius. Russian Sputnik V needs minus 18 degrees Celsius for storage.
Thus, from the global perspective, apparently it was a big challenge at several places. As India still deals with Covaxin, Covishield and Sputnik V, the burden is little less at this moment – but the Indian cold chain industry too need to be prepared for handling all types of vaccines soon.
Highlighting the scenario at the beginning of developing the COVID – 19 vaccine supply chain, when the cold chain industry came in the limelight, Cavalier said, “With the announcement of the availability of the first vaccines come, the question of their distribution and dispensing to billions of people around the world, and in the shortest possible time to stop the pandemic, remains to be answered. This is not only an unprecedented logistical challenge on a global scale, but also an equally unprecedented refrigeration challenge. Thus, when the pharmaceutical laboratory Pfizer announced on 9 November 2020 the imminent application for marketing authorisation of its Covid-19 vaccine, indicating storage temperatures of minus 80°C, the cold chain, usually ignored by all, made the headlines. The world is rediscovering the importance of the cold chain and those who make it and is asking itself many questions.”
A look at Pfizer’s distribution planning
In an open letter to the world, Pfizer’s Chairman and CEO Dr. Albert Bourla declared, “Every day, I am asked about how Pfizer and our partners at BioNTech will distribute our COVID-19 vaccine – now that it has begun to be authorized by regulators in different countries. People have questions about the process, the storage logistics and everything in between. But the underlying question is always the same: How will Pfizer and BioNTech ensure a seamless distribution of our vaccine?”
“In the last few months alone, Pfizer has developed cutting-edge packaging and storage solutions to meet the needs of the varied locations that will be distributing the vaccine – whether they are in a major cities or rural towns. Our engineers created specially designed, temperature-controlled shipping containers (that we call ‘shippers’), which contain GPS temperature enabled trackers for continuous, real-time location and temperature monitoring and can maintain required temperature conditions for up to 10 days unopened. We will have a Pfizer 24/7 control tower monitoring and tracking all shipments to ensure each shipment gets to where it needs to go at the right time and at the right temperature and take action if needed along the way. Once opened, the shippers can be used for temporary storage for up to 30 days, if the units are re-iced every five days – effectively making them temporary deep freezers. Additionally, vials containing our vaccine can be stored at refrigerator temperatures (2-8 degrees Celsius / 35 – 46 degrees Fahrenheit) for five days once out of the shippers. These specialized thermal shippers are roughly the size of a carry-on suitcase and much like a suitcase, can be quickly and easily transported globally,” he continued.
Asserting the practicality of his company’s distribution approach, Bourla communicated, “Since the early days of the pandemic, we’ve invested in building and refining the necessary infrastructure to ensure the safe and secure distribution of our vaccine. At its core, our distribution approach involves sending shipments of our vaccine directly to sites when they need them, and not a day sooner. The vaccines will be shipped by air to major hubs within a country or region and then transported by ground to dosing locations.”
Thus, Pfizer has designed a fail-safe method for its vaccine distribution, which is not only praiseworthy but also unique in its front.
Some other innovations
Many vaccine manufacturers are depending on cold chain service providers. In turn the service providers are also looking for adequate support from ancillary industries like reefer vehicle manufacturers, packaging providers, ITC service providers and so on. Let us see some of the innovations that have taken place in the past few months in these areas.
Trane Technologies is now offering its Thermo King’s SuperFreezers. As per the company, “The Thermo King SuperFreezers were derived from a freezer designed for premium grade sashimi tuna. As vaccine candidates were being developed earlier this year, Thermo King worked quickly to reposition and adapt this proven product as a solution for vaccine storage, to maintain the ultra-low temperatures required by some vaccines.” Now, available in India, these freezers can keep vaccines at temperatures between minus 70 degrees Celsius to plus 25 degrees Celsius.
Cold Chain Technologies (CCT) has launched its COVID – 19 Solutions portfolio for ensuring the required temperatures in the safe transport and storage of COVID-19 vaccines – right up to the point of use.
CCT’s COVID-19 Solutions portfolio offers products that help maintain and monitor required temperatures during transportation and both short- and long-term storage, up to and at the point of use. From its EcoFlex range of containers for the transport of vaccines at minus 20°C to conditioned phase-change refrigerants that help maintain storage temperature at refrigerated levels of 2-8°C to simple totes to near-real-time temperature monitoring and alerting capabilities using sensors embedded in specially designed thermal shippers and location tracking capabilities – CCT’s COVID-19 Solutions portfolio provides a reliable mix of products that help assure temperature integrity throughout the entire vaccine distribution chain.
With a view to facilitating transport of COVID – 19 vaccines, Daimler India Commercial Vehicles (DICV) has launched the BharatBenz ‘BSafe Express’, a specialized reefer truck designed for the safe transportation of COVID-19 vaccines. Equipped with state-of-the-art connectivity, the BSafe Express uses newly developed refrigeration units that ensure the temperature and stability of the vaccines is accurately monitored and maintained at all stages of delivery.
The refrigerated container is supplied by automotive system solutions provider Motherson Group. It is made from Glass Reinforced Plastic, XPS Foam, and other carefully-chosen materials that ensure the product is strong, water-resistant and non-corrosive, yet light-weight and highly insulated. The container can be assembled locally in as little as 96 hours, making it a much more practical solution than conventional products, which can take three or more weeks to deliver.
Commenting on the launch, Satyakam Arya, Managing Director and CEO, Daimler India Commercial Vehicles, said, “The combination of a strong, reliable chassis with a lightweight, insulated reefer and state-of-the-art connectivity device makes BharatBenz’s ‘BSafe Express’ the perfect solution to India’s cold-chain infrastructure challenge. With this truck, we can deliver vaccines in perfect condition to even the most remote destinations, bringing hope of a return to normalcy to over 1.3 billion people.”
Thanks to the stake holders that fortunately the cold chain timely groomed itself to support storage and transportation of vaccines at all corners of the world. Without its support, it would have been literally impossible to plan to vaccinate all the people in the world. In India, so far we are not using vaccines that need extremely cold (ultra-low) temperature for handling. However, the government is in talk with Pfizer and Moderna, thus our cold chain stake holders should be prepared to handle their products too – that require ultra-low temperature for preservation and transport.
By P. K. Chatterjee (P K)