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Inadequate cold chain infra may limit India’s access to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine

Pfizer’s vaccine needs to stored and transported at -70 degree Celsius to maintain its efficacy

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Pfizer’s announcement that its mRNA-based vaccine candidate, BNT162b2, has shown 92 per cent efficacy against COVID-19, gave rise to hopes of getting a COVID-19 vaccine in the near future. But, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine needs to be stored/ transported at -70 degree Celcius temperature.  So, industry experts opine that the Indian population might not get benefitted from this vaccine due to poor cold chain logistics infrastructure in the country.

Kunal Dhamesha, Senior Healthcare Analyst, Emkay Global Financial Services anticipated, “Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine for COVID-19 seems to be a no-go for India given the cold chain requirement of -70 degree Celcius during the transportation. However, Pfizer itself is going to take care of logistics (bypassing distributors) even in the US and other developed markets with their “Coolbox” tech, which can store the vaccine at -70 degree Celcius for up to 10 days. The company expects the timeline of three days from production to administration and this specially designed “Coolbox” is reusable.”

He elaborated, “Even if India manages to replicate the “cool box” technology, the chances of this vaccine making it to India is slim. Of their (Pfizer and BioNtech) capacity to produce 1.3bn doses, approximately 1.05 are already booked by the US (100 million initial doses with an option to purchase 500 million more), Europe (200 million doses with an option to purchase additional 100 million doses), Japan (120 million doses) and the UK (30 million doses).”

Dr Hari Natarajan, Founder, Pronto Consult stressed, “The cold chain requirement is going to be one of the most challenging aspects of the delivery of the vaccine. Even in the US, there is news that there may be places wherein such requirements are difficult to be met. There have been no such reports for other vaccines, which are in different stages for such a requirement. India is eagerly looking forward to vaccines being tested by Serum Institute of India, Bharat Biotech, Zydus Cadila, Dr Reddy’s Laboratories and Biological E.”

Kaushik Desai, Pharma Consultant stated, “It is very encouraging news from Pfizer about their safety of the vaccine, which is under phase III of clinical trials.  Considering the economy of scale, there must be a few Indian manufacturing companies in the pipeline for manufacturing and supply of this vaccine to global as well as Indian population. Although no specific details are available as on date, it’s a great opportunity for India as Pfizer does not have such manufacturing facilities in India.”

He continued, “But, the storage and transportation of vaccines from Pfizer will be one of the greatest challenges as it requires -70 degree Celsius to maintain its efficacy. This would be an issue which has to be dealt with globally since enough facilities for storage and distribution are not easily available considering the last mile delivery. Most of the current vaccines need around -25 degree celsius or less for storage and uninterrupted power supply. This problem would be more acute, particularly to India, including Asia and Africa region as they do not have such infrastructure. Therefore, the Indian Government has proactively formed a task force of experts with the allocation of significant financial resources. And analysing the requirements of COVID-19 vaccines, they will have to keep such supply chain issues in mind and prepare all Governments and local municipal hospitals for storage requirements accordingly. In addition to this, there is also a need to start imparting training, transport operators in this field. This is true for all future COVID-19 vaccines.”

However, logistics players are ramping up their capabilities. For instance, Ketan Kulkarni, CMO and Head – Business Development, Blue Dart informed, “We have already ramped up our infrastructure with our pre-existing specialised Temperature Controlled Logistics (TCL). Our Temperature Controlled Logistics (TCL) capabilities also extend to provide sub-zero temperature up to -80 degree Celsius. We further offer complete Supply Chain Solution for the Life Sciences and Clinical Trials Sector and reefer vehicles (cold chain) services to the vaccine sector to ensure seamless transport of shipments.”

He added, “We are already working with pharma/life science companies in their effort to tackle COVID-19 in the transportation of testing kits etc. We have eight pharma-grade conditioning rooms at eight strategic locations like Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Pune, Kolkata, Delhi and Bangalore. These rooms are at close proximity to our Blue Dart Airport Stations, which decreases our turnaround time and aid in the speedy delivery.”

“We have done our background work in terms of the capacity requirements- materials for packaging, availability of Data Loggers, Insulated Shippers, Walk-in Cold Room, Coolant, network reach, manpower preparedness, technology investment to handle requirements in this direction. We use both Single-use packaging (which provides temp stability of 48-72 hours) and multi-use boxes which have temperature stability of 96 hours. Being a part of the DPDHL Group, we have access to captive cold chain trucks with varying capacities. We have the capacity to inject many more as required into the system,” informed, Kulkarni.

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