There isn’t even a shade of doubt today that Covid-vaccines are coming. However, some critical questions in this area continue to hang in the air, and are expected to remain so for some more time. Thus, every news on the development of Covid vaccines, particularly in their late stages of clinical trials, fuels billions of hopes and excitement, across the world.
The same thing happened, when Pfizer and BioNTech announced on November 09, 2020, some key details on their vaccine candidate. These include, ‘vaccine candidate was found to be more than 90% effective in preventing COVID-19 in participants without evidence of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection in the first interim efficacy analysis’ from Phase 3 studies. The release also highlighted, ‘Submission for Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) planned for soon after the required safety milestone is achieved, which is currently expected to occur in the third week of November.’
Amid these new developments, it is also now beyond doubt that the pandemic will be brought under control, eventually. Interestingly, none possibly knows when it will happen. There doesn’t seem to be any clearly charted – time-bound pathway in place for the same, either – not just yet. That said, from the overall developments in this area for the past 10 months, especially in India, – two other crucial questions also remain elusive, as follows:
- Has the country started preparing itself against any Covid-like future biological threats? If so, in what manner?
- As India conducts the world’s largest Universal Immunization Program (UIP), how robust is the country’s vaccine supply chain to effectively inoculate every Indian with Covid-vaccine?
I have already deliberated on several aspects of the former question in one of my previous articles, in this write-up. Therefore, this write-up will focus on the second query, with a specific reference to the continued relevance of abidance of the defined health norms for some more time, especially for my pharma industry readers. Accordingly, all astute pharma professionals in India, need to accept this new reality, and rewrite their brand demand generation strategies for the new normal. Let me start with how the cold-chain logistics for vaccines, in general, work in the country.
The cold-chain logistics for vaccines:
A paper published by the BBC News, on November 11, 2020, captured how the cold-chain logistics for vaccines, in general, work almost in all countries, including India. The article is titled, ‘Coronavirus: How soon can we expect a working vaccine?’ The steps involved in this exercise are as follows:
- Vaccines transported to destination countries (imported varieties).
- Refrigerated trucks for transportation to designated cold rooms.
- Distribution in portable and appropriate ice boxes to regional centers.
- Stored in electric fridges between 2 degree to 10 degree Celsius (for most of the existing vaccines.)
- Carried in portable and appropriate ice boxes to local venues for vaccination to individuals.
As the above paper highlighted, some important associated challenges in this space, which are mostly faced by the developing countries, like India, are as follows:
- Adding a new vaccine to the existing mix could pose huge logistical problems for those already facing a difficult environment.
- According to prescribed norms, all Vaccines in India requires a storage temperature in the range of +2 degree to +8 degree Celsius, except for Oral Polio Vaccine which need to be stored in the frozen state (-25 degree – 15 degree Celsius) at all stores except PHC/ CHC/Health post. The new vaccine ROTAVAC (116E rotavirus) by Bharat Biotech is being recommended to be stored at (-15 to -25 degree Celsius) till the intermediate stores and to be stored in the range of +2 degree to +8 degree Celsius at the last storage points like PHC/ CHC/Health posts. This has not posed much of a challenge. However, expanding it to cover the entire population of the country can be an “immense task.”
- It is worth noting, although, AstraZeneca vaccine would need the regular cold chain between 2C and 8C, the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine would need ultra-cold chain – storage at around minus 70C to 80C.
- ‘Maintaining vaccines under cold chain is already one of the biggest challenges’ that countries face, and this will be exacerbated with the introduction of a new Covid vaccine.
- Thus, more cold chain equipment will require to be added, making sure that fuel is always available (to run the freezer and refrigerators in absence of electricity) and repair/replace them when they break and transport them wherever you need them.
Curiously, India’s cold-chain logistics that cater to one of the world’s largest immunization programs for children and mothers, may not be enough for Covid-19 vaccination of the country’s 1.3 billion population.
Why India’s cold-chain logistics may not be enough for Covid vaccination:
Before coming to the above question, it is important to note that India is not just the pharmacy of the world, contributing over 20 per cent by value to the global generics market, and over 40 per cent (by volume) of US drugs. According to a recent report of Bernstein Research, Indian vaccine producers, such as, Serum Institute of India supply the bulk – over 40% of the global capacity of 5.7 billion doses annually. Home to some of the world’s biggest vaccine makers, India produces 2.3 billion doses of vaccines yearly, with 74% for export, said the report.
Regardless of this fact, India’s cold-chain logistics may not be enough for Covid vaccination of its entire population, primarily because it is currently geared for children. ‘India Spend’ report of October 13, 2020 titled, ‘India’s COVID-19 Dilemma: Adults Need Vaccines, Supply Chains Geared For Children,’ presents several such interesting facts to ponder over the following points:
- Being the world’s largest in the Universal Immunization Program (UIP), India targets 26.7 million newborns and 29 million pregnant women every year (55 million people in total, or 4% of the total population). This requires 390 million doses of vaccines, over nine million sessions. But, can this infrastructure effectively handle Covid vaccination of 1.3 billion people?
- The above question arises, because India has planned to administer 400 to 500 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, mostly to its adult population by the first two quarters of 2021. For this effort, the country will have to nearly double the total number of vaccinations given in the public sector program. Thus, one can well imagine, what a humongous task, it will be for vaccination of 1.3 billion population, at the shortest possible time.
Which is why – although, over the last decades, India has created a primary vaccination infrastructure, and gained enough experience in this area, these may not be enough for Covid mass vaccination program, as stated above.
What it would it entail:
As the above ‘India Spend’ report indicates, this effort will entail:
- Ramping up capacity to administer vaccines,
- Expanding and further strengthening cold-chain infrastructure and process of storing and transporting vaccines safely, besides logistics,
- Ensuring adequate availability of ancillary items, such as syringes, glass vials, and intensive training of healthcare workers.
Without these, even if there is a life-saving vaccine available for COVID-19, people will not have access to effective vaccines, the report reiterates. From this perspective, let’s now have a glance to India’s current vaccine cold-chain logistics and infrastructure.
India’s current vaccine cold-chain logistics:
Currently, most vaccines in India are distributed by the Governments UIP mechanism. Accordingly, for the child immunization program, almost the entire vaccine cold chain is publicly funded and managed.
Going by the official statistics, at present there are in total – about 7,645 cold storages in the countrywith 68 per cent of the capacity being used for potato, while 30 per cent is a multi-commodity cold storage. ‘Most of these cater to farm produce in rural areas with ambient temperature storage and therefore are not pharmaceutical ready.’ As the industry sources indicate, ‘only a small part of the remaining 10 per cent of the industry is organized and capable of playing a key role in the distribution of the Covid vaccine.’
The comprehensive multi-year UIP plan for 2018-22 of India also specifies, while India’s UIP is currently supported by more than 27,000 functional cold chain points, only 750 (3 per cent) are located at or above the district level. The rest is located below the district level.
Nevertheless, the ongoing pandemic prompts India to administer Covid vaccines to its entire population of 1.3 billion population, over the shortest possible period of time. To achieve this goal, the cold chain industry of the country is warming up to handle this vaccine distribution challenge, maintaining the integrity of the cold chain.
The only organized pan-India cold chain player with 31 facilities is, reportedly, Snowman Logistics. Other companies, who are mostly the regional operators in this business, include Coldex, ColdStar, Western Refrigeration and JWL. Yet another report indicates, Maersk, is also poised inking a global logistics deal with US-based COVID-19 vaccine candidate COVAXX, including India. Be that as it may, the bottom-line remains, effective Covid vaccination program would not possibly commence until this gap is successfully bridged.
Meantime, as on November 15, 2020 morning, India recorded a staggering figure of 8,814,902 of Coronavirus cases with 129,674 deaths. The average number of daily new cases appeared to have slowed down in the last few weeks, except Delhi. But, the threat of further spread of Covid infection, in waves, remains as it was before.
Robust and high-quality vaccine cold chain logistics in India assumes so much of importance, because of one critical factor – to preserve its effectiveness till administered to an individual. This is regardless of whether a person is located in cities, small towns or in the remote hinterlands of the country. The successful accomplishment of this task is crucial to combat Covid pandemic, until scientists find any predictable long-term solution.
The good news is, according to a new report: ‘Amid cold chain blues, Pfizer looks to powder vaccine formula in 2021.’ BBC News also reported: ‘A group of Indian scientists are working on such a vaccine. The “warm” or a heat-stable vaccine, they claim, can be stored at 100C for 90 minutes, at 70C for about 16 hours, and at 37C for more than a month and more.’
While the world awaits to witness this happening, we all should recognize a current reality. Tough challenges are still looming large on the way of effective Covid mass vaccination programs, especially for all adult population in India. Thus, the gravity for abidance to basic infection avoidance norms – wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding crowded places, stay unchanged. Accordingly, all astute pharma professionals in India, I reckon, need to accept the prevailing reality, and rewrite their brand demand generation strategies for the new normal.
By: Tapan J. Ray
Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.