U.K. Cold Chain Researchers Launch COVID-19 Vaccine-Delivery Project in India

In anticipation of the challenges associated with distributing a potentially temperature-sensitive COVID-19 vaccine to billions of people around the world, particularly in developing countries, researchers from the University of Birmingham U.K. and Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh U.K. have launched a project in India to help engineer an efficient and sustainable vaccine-delivery mechanism based on a resilient cold chain.

“Universal vaccine access is already a major challenge,” said Toby Peters, Professor of Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham, in a post on May 7 at the university’s website. “With COVID-19, rapid mass immunisation will probably be required; maintaining a continuous cold chain to rapidly transport and deliver COVID-19 vaccines to all communities, many where electricity supply and cooling infrastructure is often non-existent or unreliable, will be a daunting task.”

Added Professor Phil Greening, from the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight at Heriot-Watt University, “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.”

Backed by the Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation, University of Birmingham and Heriot-Watt University are joining forces with nonprofit, commercial and academic partners to begin investigating the scale of challenge involved in distributing an eventual COVID-19 vaccine.

“The vaccination program will require millions of citizens of all age groups to be vaccinated within a short span of time,” said Shubhashis Dey, Associate Director of Shakti Sustainable Energy Foundation. “Our effort is designed to help India overcome this massive logistic challenge sustainably and create a model of global adoption.” He hopes the program will “create a robust logistics cold chain system that can handle the country’s overall vaccine needs.”

In concert with these efforts, research in India led by Centre for Environment Education, and supported by commercial partners such as Zanotti (a part of the Daikin Group), SureChill and Nexleaf Analytics, will begin addressing a number of questions that will be key to solving the cold-chain conundrum, including:

  • Does any country have the infrastructure, resources and planning capability to meet the demand of COVID-19 immunization, while still meeting current vaccine needs?
  • If not, what infrastructure and training do we need in place?
  • What are the short- and long-term infrastructure financing requirements to create such an efficient vaccine delivery system?
  • Can we achieve this sustainably – economically, socially and environmentally?

Community Cooling Hubs

Clean cold experts from the University of Birmingham and Heriot-Watt University have already been 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.

“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,” said Greening of Heriot-Watt University.

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.

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.”

Maintaining a continuous cold chain to rapidly transport and deliver COVID-19 vaccines to all communities, many where electricity supply and cooling infrastructure is often non-existent or unreliable, will be a daunting task.

Toby Peters, University of Birmingham