Roughly three billion people worldwide might miss out on potentially life-saving coronavirus vaccines because there aren’t enough cold storage facilities.
Many vaccines need to be stored in consistent, cool temperatures that are generally between 2 and 8 degrees Celsius. But some RNA vaccines need to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius to minus 15 degrees Celsius—meaning this type of high-end infrastructure isn’t available in many poorer, developing countries.
Large parts of Central Asia, India, Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa are considered to be most in need of such cold storage facilities that can handle millions of vaccine doses, according to the Associated Press.
“I’m not optimistic on how the vaccine would be distributed in the inner states because there is no infrastructure of any kind to guarantee delivery—or if it gets delivered, guarantees the adequate preservation under cold conditions,” Dr. Alberto Paniz-Mondolfi, a pathologist in Venezuela, told the Associated Press.
Issa Ouedraogo, the national vaccination director of Burkina Faso, said that the country will require approximately a thousand extra clinical refrigerators to store coronavirus vaccines. Only 40 percent of health centers are currently in possession of reliable fridges.
India is also battling logistical issues in safely storing enough vaccine doses for its 1.3 billion citizens.
“Most if not all the current frontrunners require extremely stringent cold chains, making them immensely challenging for India to implement,” Satyajit Rath, of the National Institute of Immunology, told the Press Trust of India.
The same holds true in the Philippines because before the pandemic, such advanced infrastructure was not necessarily needed.
“The cold chain industry does not have that capability now because there is no existing need for that capability,” Anthony Dizon, president of the Cold Chain Association of the Philippines Inc., said in an email response, per the Philippine Star.
“Although there are some industry stakeholders who have allocated some capacity and capability for pharmaceutical products, understandably, these initiatives are scaled in accordance with market ends.”
Logistics companies, however, are trying to ramp up their cold storage capabilities. For example, UPS is constructing two “freezer farms” containing six hundred deep-freezers that can each hold 48,000 vaccine vials at temperatures as low as minus 80 degrees Celsius, according to Bloomberg.
Several international organizations have overseen the installation of tens of thousands of solar-powered vaccine refrigerators as well. And Covax—which is run by the World Health Organization, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations—plans to prioritize vaccines that can be stored at 2 to 8 degrees Celsius, the AP reported.
UNICEF has offered governments a checklist of what they will need to maintain a vaccine supply chain and asked them to develop a comprehensive plan.
“The governments are in charge of what needs to happen in the end,” Benjamin Schreiber, who is among the directors of UNICEF’s vaccination program, told the Associated Press.
Currently, more than forty coronavirus vaccine candidates are in clinical trials and another 151 are in pre-clinical evaluations, according to the WHO.
Ethen Kim Lieser is a Minneapolis-based Science and Tech Editor who has held posts at Google, The Korea Herald, Lincoln Journal Star, AsianWeek, and Arirang TV. Follow or contact him on LinkedIn.