Why lack of cold storage could hamper Covid vaccine distribution

From manufacture to the syringe, a vaccine requires stable temperatures and mobile refrigeration.

In Summary
  • Refrigeration requirements have cast doubt on the ability to access the vaccine by more than three billion people.
  • Currently, 42 vaccine candidates are in clinical trials and 151 in pre-clinical evaluation.
A vaccine
A vaccine
Image: FILE

Kenya is among countries that will be required to improve cold chain networks to meet the storage demands of a Covid-19 vaccine.

Experts say refrigeration requirements have cast doubt on the ability to access the vaccine to more than three billion people.

As a result, the poor who are among the hardest hit by Covid-19 are likely to be the last to be reached by the vaccine.


Currently, 42 vaccine candidates are in clinical trials and 151 in pre-clinical evaluation.

But experts have now warned that temperature-controlled storage in most developing countries is insufficient for an immunisation campaign to bring the virus under control.

From the time it is manufactured to the time it reaches the syringe, a vaccine requires stable temperatures, mobile refrigeration, good roads and reliable electricity.

Most of these are unavailable in some parts of African countries.

Once approved, the vaccines will need to be stored at 2-8 degrees Celsius. Unfortunately, such medical freezers are rare even in the developed world.

Some will require to be stored in ultra-cold temperatures.

Kenya’s vaccine supply chain is fragmented, with clinics and hospitals mostly organising their own collections.


A 2013 study in the Vaccine journal showed it costs an average of Sh34 to deliver a single dose of vaccine in Kenya, which is considered expensive.

The vaccine cold chain hurdle is just the latest disparity of the pandemic weighted against the poor, who in most cases live in crowded areas that act as a breeding ground for the virus. People in such areas have a disadvantage in accessing medical services.

According to a study by DHL, a global logistics company, such advanced technology is lacking in almost two thirds of the world.

“Billions of people are in countries that don’t have the necessary infrastructure to maintain the cold chain for either existing vaccines or more conventional coronavirus candidates,” the study showed.

The company estimates that more than 15,000 cargo flights will be required to ensure supply of vaccines in the entire world.

According to the World Health Organization, a fraction of vaccines globally is lost to wastage due to exposure to heat or as a result of breakage of vials while in transit.

The fear with Covid-19 vaccine is that being in high demand, theft is likely to be reported.

“Creativity will be needed to keep the cold chain intact while coronavirus vaccines are distributed on a global scale. If people can figure out how to transport ice cream, they can transport vaccines,” a researcher at Johns Hopkins University Tinglong Dai said.

There will be a need to modify existing cold chain networks to align them with efficient immunisation approaches.

The performance of cold chains has been hampered by large quantities of outdated equipment, which fail to provide the protective benefit of more recent designs.


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