Cold Chain Problems Could Mean Wasted Vaccines

Keeping coronavirus vaccines at subzero temperatures during distribution will be hard, but likely key to ending the pandemic.

Production of a COVID-19 vaccine will fall far short of need at first, so every vaccine is valuable.
Production of a COVID-19 vaccine will fall far short of need at first, so every vaccine is valuable.
AP Photo/Hans Pennink

Just like a fresh piece of fish, vaccines are highly perishable products and must be kept at very cold, specific temperatures. The majority of  – like the  – are new . If they get too warm or too cold . And, just like fish, a spoiled vaccine must be thrown away.

So how do companies and public health agencies get vaccines to the people who need them?

The answer is something called the vaccine cold chain – a supply chain that can keep vaccines in tightly controlled temperatures from the moment they are made to the moment that they are administered to a person.

Ultimately, hundreds of millions of people in the U.S. and  are going to need a coronavirus vaccine – and potentially . This mass vaccination effort is going to require a complex vaccine cold chain on a scale like never before. The current vaccine cold chain is not up to the task, and expanding the supply chain is not going to be easy.

Cold chain problems mean wasted vaccines

Most vaccines need to be stored within  of their ideal temperature. Traditional vaccines are usually stored between , but some of the leading COVID-19 vaccines need to be stored at much colder temperatures. Moderna’s vaccine requires a storage temperature of , whereas Pfizer’s vaccine candidate requires a storage temperature of . These are not easy temperatures to maintain accurately.

A study from 2019 estimated that  by the time they arrive at their destination. If a vaccine is exposed to temperatures outside its range, and this gets noticed, then the vaccines are always thrown away. Rarely, a temperature mistake is missed and one of these vaccines is administered. Research shows that these vaccines , but could offer  and might require a patient to be revaccinated.

Temperature mistakes are mostly due to inappropriate shipping procedures in the cold chain, and these losses are estimated at . But that number does not even take into account the cost – physically as well as financially – of any illnesses that could have been prevented by timely deliveries of high-quality vaccines.

As a scholar of operations management, I study  in the  and how they relate to . With  to address the pandemic, a high spoilage rate would result in an immense financial loss and a huge delay in vaccinations that could result in deaths and a longer global shutdown.

The cold chain today

Experts estimate that somewhere between .

Currently, the world is capable of producing and distributing around . In 2021, experts expect companies will produce , and the cold chain must be able to handle this huge increase on top of the vaccines that must be distributed every year already.

 requires three major pieces of infrastructure: planes, trucks and cold storage warehouses. How the infrastructure is connected and utilized depends on the vaccine production locations and the points of demand.

Once a COVID-19 vaccine is produced, it likely will be immediately transported by truck to the nearest suitable airport. Since a COVID-19 vaccine is particularly valuable and time sensitive, it will likely be shipped via air transport across the country or world. After these planes are unloaded, the vaccines will be taken via truck to appropriate warehouse storage facilities for transportation to distribution facilities. Some of the vaccines may be directly shipped from the warehouses to health care facilities where the vaccinations will take place.

Preparations and solutions

So what can companies, health agencies and governments do to help expand the cold chain?

The first step will be to identify where the vaccines will be produced. If production is done mainly abroad, companies will need to use trucks and planes for transportation within their own countries and for further distribution to others.

There is also a lot of uncertainty about which COVID-19 vaccine . Different vaccines may require different temperatures and different handling procedures. Hence, staff throughout the cold chain would need different training on how to handle each vaccine.

Another question is how frequently . This will depend on the refrigeration capacity of health care organizations and hospitals, staffing resources, the locations the vaccines will be given and many other factors, including the shelf life of the vaccine itself.

Finally, there is the simple problem of how to expand shipping and storage capacity.

Typical restaurant freezers have a range of  Fahrenheit and simply can’t reach the temperatures required by something like the Pfizer vaccine. Specialized equipment is needed.

Several major logistics companies, including UPS and DHL, are already investing in new storage facilities for cold chain management. UPS is adding  capable of reaching minus 80 degrees Celsius near UPS air hubs in Louisville, Kentucky, and the Netherlands. Each location will be able to hold  and could easily store either the  or the .

Installing freezers capable of the low temperatures needed by the Pfizer vaccine isn’t possible in many places, so it is essential that processes be put into place to make sure those areas can receive a steady supply of the vaccine.

Airports and logistics companies are  whetherf they can meet this need. The results remain to be seen.

These are just a few of the major problems and potential solutions, but there are dozens of interesting scenarios that could arise.

For example, if the U.S. government gets involved in distribution, there is a possibility that the . Constant electricity becomes essential as well. In regions where fire risk is leading to blackouts or in developing nations where the grid is not as reliable, thousands of vaccines could be lost if the power goes out. It is also expected that  will be able to accept such valuable, perishable cargo, so bottlenecks may occur there. And finally, it’s possible that with , there might not be  to meet the demand for shipping these vaccines.

Every vaccine produced could save a life and bring the world closer to a return to normalcy, but getting the vaccines to where they need to be is not going to be easy. Preparing and fortifying the cold chain for vaccine distribution will ensure that vaccines are not wasted and will help the world get through this pandemic sooner.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here: .