After the elation of the first approval of a COVID-19 vaccine comes the realisation that making and testing the vaccine is only the beginning.
The next job is figuring out how to distribute hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccine across the world from the Pfizer manufacturing plants in Europe and the United States.
And this has to be done while keeping the vaccine below -70 degrees Celsius.
In effect, thousands of specially-designed boxes that maintain an internal temperature of Antarctica in winter will have to be transported to places where ice cream melts in the shade and fruit and vegetables regularly arrive at their destination spoiled by heat.
This is no simple task, especially when you consider that a quarter of all Australia’s fresh produce, which only has to be kept a little above 0 degrees Celsius, is wasted due to breaks in the cold supply chain — often due to simple mistakes of handling.
Logistics experts say these challenges are “massive” and “unprecedented”.
Dr Hermione Parsons, founding director of Deakin University’s Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics, said Australia had not faced a logistics challenge like this in recent memory.
Her colleague, Dr Roberto Perez-Franco, had to go back more than 70 years to find anything comparable to the global COVID-19 vaccination rollout.
“This is the largest logistics effort in the world since World War II,” he said.
Of all the COVID-19 vaccines that may be distributed in 2021 and beyond, the one that is probably the most difficult to store and transport happens to be the first to be approved for human use.
The cold chain
The system for distributing products at low temperatures is known as the ‘cold chain’.
An unbroken cold chain has to be maintained from the time the vaccine comes off the production line at Pfizer’s manufacturing facilities in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Puurs, Belgium, right through to when it is thawed to be administered.
If the cold chain fails, the vaccine can degrade and even become contaminated with bacteria.
Next year, if the Pfizer vaccine gets the greenlight from the Therapeutic Goods Administration, the first of ten million doses will arrive in Australia in specially designed cooler boxes packed with dry ice.
Pfizer calls these cool boxes ‘thermal shippers’, essentially sophisticated eskies, that keep the vaccine below -70C. But once it thaws outside of these boxes, the vaccine has to be used within days.
From the airports, the boxes will be trucked to what Pfizer calls “government-designated distribution sites”. The Australian Government has not yet said where these sites would be, but in the UK, where the vaccine was approved for emergency use last week, the vaccine will be distributed from hospitals.
Exactly how the vaccine will be stored at these distribution sites is up to the Australian Government.
In a statement, Pfizer said the Federal Government would have three options for storing the vaccine: