Prior to the pandemic, the world’s vaccine production totalled around 5 billion doses, covering a wide variety of diseases. During 2021, the aim is to produce double that number of doses to fight COVID-19 alone.

Quite apart from the complexity and specialist knowledge involved in creating the vaccines themselves, this unprecedented jump in production will bring with it enormous logistical challenges. Vaccines are only effective if kept within tightly controlled – and cold – temperature ranges. This means there must be a ‘cold chain’ in place to ensure that these temperatures are maintained at each step of distribution, all the way from the manufacturer to every individual recipient. It is little wonder that the International Air Transport Association estimated in 2019 that a quarter of all vaccine doses worldwide were rendered unusable due to poor temperature management. Once the distribution of billions of COVID vaccines is also factored in, the scale of the challenge becomes almost overwhelming.

In an episode of the BBC World Service’s ‘Business Daily’ programme titled ‘What it takes to vaccinate the world’, David Elliot of Dulas – a UK manufacturer of solar-powered vaccine refrigerators used across many developing countries – set out the unprecedented nature of the problem that needs to be solved. “Are there enough cargo planes to transport the vaccine, enough technicians to install the equipment, enough nurses…even enough glass to make the vials to hold the vaccine? The answer is no. We are trying to do something on a scale that’s never been done before, and we need to ramp up the planning and investment so that we can do it.”

That need for investment also creates an opportunity to make the cold chain more environmentally sustainable. Using electricity generated from fossil fuels to power refrigerators full of harmful CFC refrigerants with high global warming potential (GWP) will only solve one problem at the cost of exacerbating another. Dulas’s solar powered refrigerators are a perfect example of sustainable refrigeration. Powered directly from the sun there are no on-going energy costs or carbon emissions from their use. They use natural refrigerants like R600a, that are non-toxic and have zero ODP (Ozone Depletion Potential) along with very low GWP. Even the insulation foam used in their construction is made from recycled vegetable oil (certified biobased content of 58%). Choosing to invest in such cold chain equipment today is vital to ensure we prepare for a future with healthy people and a healthy climate.

When it comes to the international cooperation that will be required to build a global cold chain not all the omens are hopeful – the row over vaccine exports between the EU and the UK shows that national interests can still come to the fore – but there seems to be a general acceptance that individual countries working alone cannot protect themselves against global diseases. Now that one pandemic has occurred, there is little doubt that more will arise in the future, so there need to be permanent, international systems in place to tackle them. On 30 March 2021, Boris Johnson, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron were among more than 20 world leaders who signed a letter calling for an international pandemic treaty to build cross-border cooperation.

Another of the signatories was Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, where ACES – the Africa Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold Chain – has been established. This is a project created by UNEP (the United Nations Environment Programme), in partnership with the Rwandan and UK governments. Based in Kigali, ACES will explore how sustainable, environmentally-friendly cold chains can contribute to Africa’s growth. Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, described the new centre as “a boon for sustainable cold chains that are essential to respond to the COVID-19 global pandemic. As we seek to build back better, sustainable cooling can help deliver vaccines, ensure food supply, and reboot the economy by generating employment and investment opportunities.”

Her colleague, Ligia Noronha, Director of the Economy Division at UNEP, has also commented that ‘The vaccination against COVID-19 is an inflection point that will determine how cold chains are handled on a global scale for the next two decades.’

At the moment, cold chain resources – as with resources in general – are very unevenly distributed. Let’s hope that one positive outcome of COVID is a levelling-up that enables all countries to have the means to store and distribute vaccines. As long as any are left behind, viruses can survive in pockets waiting to flare up again and pose a threat to us all.