Programme to develop sustainable cold chain delivery for COVID-19 vaccine initiated

Researchers have begun research to find how sustainable cold chain delivery systems for a COVID-19 vaccine can be established in resource-poor countries.

COVID-19 vaccine in fridge

Scientists are launching a new research project in India that will help to engineer an efficient and sustainable delivery mechanism for the distribution of an eventual COVID-19 vaccine to billions of people around the globe.

Supported by the Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation in India, experts from the University of Birmingham and Heriot-Watt University, both UK, are joining forces with non-profit, commercial and academic partners to begin investigating the scale of challenge involved in distributing a potentially temperature-sensitive COVID-19 vaccine.

According to the researchers, universal vaccine access is a major challenge, particularly in low-income countries – partly due to the lack of robust cold-chains. The Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization estimates that only 10 percent of health care facilities in the world’s poorest countries have a reliable electricity supply while in some countries less than 5 percent of health centres have vaccine-qualified refrigerators.

Toby Peters, Professor of Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham, commented: “Universal vaccine access is already a major challenge. With COVID-19, rapid mass immunisation will probably be required; maintaining a continuous cold chain to rapidly transport and deliver COVID-19 vaccine to all communities, many where electricity supply and cooling infrastructure is often non-existent or unreliable, will be a daunting task. Given most of the technologies deployed today will still be in operation in the next decade, the emergence of sustainable and off-grid cold-chain devices allows us the opportunity to create sustainable solutions for COVID-19 vaccine deployment that also can deliver resilient and sustainable health cold-chain systems as a lasting legacy.”

Shubhashis Dey, Associate Director of Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, commented: “COVID-19 related mass immunisation requirements offer us an opportunity to not only increase our vaccine production, but also create a robust logistics cold chain system that can handle the country’s overall vaccine needs… Our effort is designed to help India overcome this massive logistic challenge sustainably and create a model of global adoption.”

Research in India will be led by the Centre for Environment Education and supported by commercial partners such as Zanotti (a part of the Daikin Group), Sure Chill and Nexleaf Analytics. This group will begin by researching a number of questions that will be key to solving the cold-chain conundrum, including which countries have the needed infrastructure, what the the financing requirements to establish an efficient vaccine delivery system and how this can be done sustainably. 

Clean cold experts from the University of Birmingham and Heriot-Watt University are working with Indian counterparts Centre for Environment Education and MP Ensystems to explore how integrated ‘Community Cooling Hubs’ can integrate food cold chains with other cold-dependent services such as community health facilities, social facilities and even emergency services.

Professor Phil Greening, from the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight at Heriot-Watt University, commented: “We may have 12-18 months to engineer a robust, efficient distribution system to ensure any vaccine for COVID-19 can reach the world’s population, whether they are in urban or remote rural areas. A radical approach like community cooling hubs could help meet the different communities’ cooling needs in a clean, affordable and sustainable way while helping to safeguard people’s health. There will be many knowns and unknowns in facing the coronavirus challenge, but a vaccine is one of the very few exit strategies around which scientists and government are aligned.” 

Researchers at the University of Birmingham and Heriot-Watt University believe that their work in this area will ultimately help to:

  • Develop a short- to medium-term crisis exit solution aimed to deliver COVID-19 vaccine in a safe, efficient and clean manner, while still maintaining routine vaccine deliveries
  • Create a long-term contingency framework through establishment of logistics specifically for medicine, blood, vaccines, that is cost-effective, sustainable and responsive to different levels of challenge – basic needs, natural disasters/ regional epidemics, national pandemics
  • Deliver lasting value by meeting current unmet and future vaccine demand.

Professor Peters added: “Ultimately, we need a global effort to prepare the vaccine and in parallel a global strategy to develop the appropriate sustainable and legacy equitable cold chains and achieve this with minimum environmental impact. Out-of-the-box thinking is needed if we are to define sustainable and inclusive solutions that can be delivered quickly and at scale to beat this pandemic and unlock connections between COVID-19 vaccine deployment, sustainable cold chain and development of clean energy infrastructure.”