OPINION: Yes, India can overcome COVID-19 vaccine storage and distribution challenges
It is very discouraging to see negative coverage around the ‘impossibility’ of storing and distributing the potential COVID-19 vaccine, which will supposedly require ultra-low and low temperatures for the length and breadth of the exercise. This at the time when most of us have been waiting patiently to get vaccinated and be able to put this pandemic behind us.
Most media coverage seems to point at poor infrastructure, high cost of freezers, unreliable electricity and a host of other issues that are a reality in our country. What we forget, however, is the fact that despite the challenges that are peculiar to India because of its massive population, we have been successful in the past with similar low-temperature vaccine drives, albeit on a different scale.
Yes, it will be difficult to invest in cold storages and other cold chain infrastructure overnight. Our electricity grid won’t suddenly become more reliable either. There is, however, a tried and tested solution to our problems. We can very well bypass the inherent challenges by moving to a non-electricity dependent cold chain, essentially using simple insulated boxes and dry ice.
At present, the Universal Immunisation Program in India has over 27,000 cold-chain points and 76,000 items of cold-chain equipment, 95% of which is kept in primary health centres, community health centres and sub-centres. Vaccine carriers and cold boxes are non-electrical equipment that use dry ice for storage and transportation of the vaccine.
Dry ice can primarily be used for maintaining ultra low temperatures for vaccine capacities ranging from a few hundred doses to bulk truckloads. It is not just cost effective in quick and large-scale operations, but also convenient and safe.
On March 27, 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared India a polio free country. Not a single case of the wild polio virus had been reported since 2011. A key factor in the success of the polio vaccination drive, which covered each and every village and district of India, was cold chain logistics using dry ice. For a developing country like ours, dry ice is very cost effective as it doesn’t require investment on expensive cold chain infrastructure like refrigerated freezers that additionally require electricity to function. Just to know the mass vaccination quantum, on Pulse Polio Day in 2011, 172 million children were vaccinated by health workers.
For the nationwide pulse vaccination, 4,000 to 5,000 vials of the oral polio vaccine were stored in suitable-sized thermocol boxes that were packed with calculated quantities of dry ice. Vaccine vials, packed in thermocol boxes with dry ice to maintain low temperature, were then transported in bulk through insulated container trucks to the major cold chain points. The vaccine was then distributed to primary health centres, community health centres and sub-centres before Pulse Polio Day.
According to data shared by industry experts, a ton of dry ice will be sufficient to store and transport at least two lakh doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, if properly designed and sized insulated boxes are used.
Ultra-cold temperature storage of the vaccine could also be maintained for a period of 7 to 8 days, provided the box is not opened during the entire period. The number of days can easily be extended by another week or so by simply topping up the insulated box with dry ice, which can be stored in each district healthcare center.
Similar boxes are used globally for vaccine transport and storage. The polio vaccine cold chain logistics, India’s big success story using dry ice in thermocol boxes, can be adopted for the COVID-19 vaccine logistics too. With advance planning and right investment in the right areas, India has all the means to make Covid-19 vaccination drive a success story as well.
Dry ice is the solid form of carbon dioxide, has a temperature of -80 to -90 degrees Celsius and an evaporation temperature of minus 78.5 degrees. Low temperature and direct sublimation to gaseous form makes dry ice an effective coolant, making it colder than water ice. Additionally, it leaves no residue as it changes state. Considering all the positives, dry ice usage has increased in India in recent years, especially for the aviation sector in food catering, in pharma industry for bulk drug manufacturing, as well as for vaccine storage and transport.
So, the need of the hour is not to panic but suggest this low temperature vaccine distribution effort, which has already seen success in a country like ours. That will be a herculean task in itself. Given the large scale requirement for the Covid-19 vaccine, we need to step out of our complacent zones and ensure proper coordination and planning between central agencies, district-level centres. as well as leading industry partners. Considering the easy availability of dry ice, insulated boxes of various sizes and regular goods vehicles of various sizes in India, yes, we can solve the cold chain logistics issue to ensure that the Covid-19 vaccination drive is a success in India, like other vaccination drives before.
(Pulin Modi is the associate vice-president (operations) at Sicgil Industrial Gases. He has decades of experience in Co2 and dry ice operations in the country, and has supported various vaccine manufacturers of India in the past with the low temperature distribution and storage of vaccines.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions mentioned within do not reflect the views of EastMojo and we do not assume any responsibility for the same.