Visit any hospital or medical institution, and you will see vaccine storage solutions, including refrigerated storage units that maintain a reliable temperature level. However, as inoculation rollout intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, these solutions required a significant tune-up.
In today’s interconnected world, vaccine rollout has become a global project. Not only do we need to be able to provide doses wherever these doses are required, but we also need to minimize wastage and shrinkage and support more reliable modes of storage, distribution, and implementation. This means changing our approach to vaccine refrigeration and looking toward a model that rises to the challenge of COVID-19, as well as any other challenges the future may hold in store.
Ultra-Low Temperature Refrigerator Storage Units
When we think of refrigeration, we tend to think of keeping something cool — often around freezing point or just above. For long-term vaccine storage, however, far lower temperatures are required. This necessitates ultra-low temp refrigerator storage units suitable for maintaining a reserve supply of vaccine doses.
The Moderna vaccine is reported as requiring a temperature of -30° Celsius during storage. Meanwhile, Pfizer doses require an even lower temperature, typically between -80 °C to -60 °C. Any facility that is holding vaccines for storage will need to deploy reliable technology across the whole chain, ensuring that doses are quickly transferred to these refrigerator storage units when required and that the units remain online and powered up in all eventualities. While the technology to achieve this is already available, enhanced levels of accessibility and reliability are necessary for large-scale vaccine rollouts.
Alternative Power Sources
Alternative power and energy sources have received significant attention in recent years as governments and policy-makers across the world scramble to find renewable means of supporting their respective countries. Refrigerator storage units — and the ultra-low temperature units listed above in particular — require huge amounts of energy if they are to operate reliably. This leaves us with a conundrum: how can we operate these units in a sustainable manner without compromising on efficacy?
In fact, viable alternative power sources have been driving vaccine refrigerators for quite some time already. In 2010, a Solar Direct Drive entered development, utilizing a built-in solar bank to provide direct power to a refrigeration compressor. Over the last decade, the design and technology have been refined and developed, leaving us with a portable refrigeration unit that can be deployed quickly and easily, even in locations without access to more traditional power sources.
As with many other aspects of technology, the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating further development of this technology, as well as similar tech concepts. The idea is to create vaccine refrigeration units that are both sustainable and highly effective on a large scale.
“Last Mile” Cooling
One of the key challenges for administering vaccines across the world has been the “last mile.” While cooling and refrigeration are, of course, critical during vaccine storage and transportation, this is only part of the battle. The vaccines must also be delivered the last mile to the places that need them most and must be in an acceptable condition when they arrive.
This last mile cooling requirement has seen many professionals going back to basics, relying on tried-and-tested methods to get vaccines to where they need to be. The Vaccine Alliance highlighted the story of Michelline Uwimana, a nurse who utilized an old-fashioned cool box as she delivered vaccines on foot to communities in rural Uganda.
While such stories are relatively extreme examples, they are common enough to represent a major concern for future vaccine rollouts — how can we make sure that individuals, no matter where they are, receive the appropriate care? Last mile cooling solutions could be an interesting area of tech development in this field in the coming years.
Looking Beyond Refrigeration
The key factor that makes vaccine refrigeration so important is the makeup of the vaccines themselves. These doses tend to include biomolecular materials that do not respond well to temperature changes. When the temperature strays beyond certain parameters, the vaccine may begin to break down. Potential solutions to this include freeze-drying and solutions suspension, but this will not be suitable for all vaccines, and some form of refrigeration will still be required.
With this in mind, vaccine researchers are looking to develop doses that can remain viable outside of these temperature parameters. Again, this is not a particularly new idea. In the 1970s, a smallpox vaccine was treated with freeze-drying and then remained stable for long periods, even at higher temperatures. More recently, the MenAfriVac meningitis vaccine can remain useable even after four days outside of refrigeration.
What is new, however, is the scale and intensity of current research. When COVID-19 set the world’s immunologists into action, developing a new vaccine that would bring the novel coronavirus pandemic under control, it also set in motion a chain of events that would lead to significant leaps forward in terms of how we approach vaccines. This includes further research into immunization doses that do not need ultra-low temperature storage and perhaps do not need any temperature control at all. One example of this is the “molecular cage” that is in development at the University of Bath in the UK, which would offer enhanced stability to vaccines without the need for refrigeration. In the future, this could be a key area of research as we seek to make doses available to everyone who can benefit from them.
A Clear-Eyed View Regarding COVID-19
It’s important to remember that COVID-19 was at once unprecedented in terms of its scale and the global response and, at the same time, routine. By routine, we mean that it was a mass health crisis — similar to those involving Ebola, smallpox, or bird flu — and that it required vaccination programs to bring it under control. Basically, COVID-19 changed a great deal about the world economically, culturally, politically — but it is far from unique.
We can look with hope and optimism toward a post-COVID-19 landscape, but we should not be fooled into thinking this is the end of the story. Increasing globalization and cross-border trade and travel mean further pandemics are likely in the future. It’s almost inevitable. But this shouldn’t be a bleak thought; instead, it should spur us on to be ever more prepared, ready to save lives and give the world’s population the protection it needs. Vaccine refrigeration storage technology is going to be crucial in this preparation.