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Indian logistics players say they are boosting cold chain for vaccine deliveries

While many covid vaccines under development require storage at temperatures between 2-8 °C, Pfizer’s promising messenger RNA vaccine requires storage at -70°C or lower. (File Photo: Bloomberg)Premium
While many covid vaccines under development require storage at temperatures between 2-8 °C, Pfizer’s promising messenger RNA vaccine requires storage at -70°C or lower. (File Photo: Bloomberg)

  • India's universal immunisation programme runs on the back of 27,000 functional cold chain points and about 76,000 cold chain equipment. This capacity will be strained catering to covid demand, which could be 250 mn people in first phase

NEW DELHI: Indian cold chain and logistics companies are preparing for distribution of covid-19 vaccines next year, stocking up on raw materials, boosting cold chain capacity while training people to handle vaccines that could need storage at low temperatures.

The preparations have a rider — they wouldn’t be able to deal in vaccines that require temperatures below -30°C.

While many covid vaccines under development require storage at temperatures between 2-8 °C, Pfizer’s promising messenger RNA vaccine requires storage at -70°C or lower. Not just India, very few countries in the world have the infrastructure to move vaccines at such a low temperature.

Snowman Logistics Ltd., a cold chain logistics company, operates 31 cold storages across 15 Indian cities at the moment and will boost its capacity to 33 cold storages in 17 cities over the next three months. This translates to 1,20,000 pallets and each pallet can store 6,000 vaccines, Showman chief executive Sunil Nair told Mint.

"All our cold storages can technically store up to -30°C and with minor modifications, it can be taken to -40°C as well. However, most vaccine developers are talking of 2-8°C or at most, -18°C. If that is the case, there is good capacity available in India," he added.

The Indian government has good capacity because of the Universal Immunization Programs (UIP), which targets 26 million newborns and 30 million pregnant women every year. UIP runs on the back of 27,000 functional cold chain points and about 76,000 cold chain equipment. Nevertheless, this capacity would be strained catering to the covid demand, which could be 250 million people in the first phase.

“Our company’s capacity utilisation is at 85% now. We expect covid business. When the vaccine arrives, the volume would be good enough to involve private entities," Nair hoped.

Equipment required for vaccine storage and distribution include cold rooms, ice lined refrigerators, deep freezers, vaccine vans and cold boxes.

Blue Star Limited, a commercial refrigeration manufacturer, said it has set aside raw material to cater to demand for cold rooms. “In addition to our regular production, we have kept raw material ready for cold rooms. Even if the quantity doubles versus our regular supply, we are ready. We have planned additional shifts between December 2020 and April 2021," B Thiagarajan, managing director of the company said.

RS Subramanian, senior VP and managing director, DHL Express, said the company is in the middle of scenario planning. Depending on the technology platform picked in India, the packaging of the vaccine as well as staff training would need to be tweaked. “We already do temperature controlled movements for pharma and clinical research customers. All packing material companies engage with DHL. We are in touch with people who can move temperature controlled shipments in addition to our capacity," he said.

So, what happens if India chooses a vaccine that needs storage at -70c?

Nirmal K. Ganguly, former director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research, said pharma companies developing vaccines are simultaneously developing freezers in other markets. “The freezers would be factored into the price of the vaccine," he said and added that in India, organisations such as Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) can mass manufacture such storage if required.

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