A Big challenge for Pfizer-BioNTech’s Covid-19 vaccine: The week commenced with a positive note as American pharma giant Pfizer and its partner German firm BioNTech announced that their Covid-19 vaccine is 90% efficient with no major side effects. The news brought good news for stock markets as the numbers raised amid hopes of return to normalcy with an effective Covid-19 vaccine. Governments across the world have started scrambling to procure, store and prepare for vaccine roll-out. But equitable distribution of vaccine to all the nations, especially poorer and more vulnerable, will pose as a major hurdle.
The biggest challenge with this particular vaccine is storage – it requires to be stored at -70C (-94F). This is a bitter news for low economy nations, like Africa, which is already plummeting with vaccine storage infrastructure.
Major economies like US and European Union are already on track with establishing logistics for the vaccine once it is procured by the manufacturing giant. Two huge facilities, equipped with bulk freezers have been set up in Kalamazoo, Michigan in US, and in Puurs, Belgium. These facilities will function as the central point of storage and shipping of coronavirus vaccine by Pfizer-BioNTech.
Kroll, a risk consulting firm’s Managing Director, Nick Doyle underlines, “It’s going to be a monumental challenge. We do have a duty of care for international populations. The poorer countries in the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Asia, are going to find this challenging.”
Though the development of promising and efficacious Covid-19 vaccine is extremely gratifying, the problem isn’t solved for poorer nations of Africa and Southeast Asia who are struggling to even have one functioning vaccine refrigerator.
Pfizer and BioNTech, post affirming more data, are planning to apply for emergency approval of vaccine in US and regulators by the end of this month, and then commence shipping to other nations by December. US has already blocked a bulk of 100 million doses, while EU has ordered for 200 million and UK 40 million. Pfizer is under process to accomplish supply of 50 million doses of its coronavirus vaccine by the end of this year and 1.3 billion doses by next year. The centres in Puurs and Kalamazoo have already started manufacturing thousands of doses. More “freezer farms” are on stand-by to provide storage for vaccines in Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, and in Karlsruhe, Germany.
Customized storage boxes have been prepared by Pfizer that can keep the vaccines at a maintained ultra-cold temperature using dry ice (solid carbon dioxide). These re-usable suitcase-sized boxes will be used to transport 1000 to 5000 doses and can maintain the temperature for up to 10 days. Pfizer has said that the vaccine can be then stored at fridge temperatures of 2-8C for up to 5 days.
The custom-made boxes can be GPS tracked and also inform the Pfizer control station of temperatures being maintained in the transport trucks. Pfizer is hoping to transport about 25 lorries a day full of these boxes to enable rapid distribution from these centres to airports, moving round 7.6 million doses per day.
Logistic firms like FedEx, UPS and DHL are also working to strengthen and streamline their operations and logistics for smooth transportation of vaccines. UPS has built storage freezer farms, one each in US and Netherlands, which can hold around 800 deep freezers and keep vaccines at -80C temperature. DHL and FedEx are also building storage units and keeping refrigerated lorries on stand-by.
Germany has also set up 60 vaccination centres which are equipped with freezers for vaccine storage at ultra-low temperatures.
Other Covid-19 vaccines that are being developed and are under phase 3 of clinical trials do not require such low temperatures. Vaccine by US firm Moderna can be kept at -20C temperatures, like in home refrigerators. AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine can be stored and shipped in unfrozen state.
Following couple of weeks and months will keep governments and pharma giants Pfizer and BioNTech on their toes as they scramble to manufacture and roll out the vaccine in a most unhinged and smooth fashion to all nations in an equitable way.