Most vaccines must be kept at a narrow temperature range between two and eight degrees centigrade in order to remain effective. The COVID-19 vaccine, when it comes, is likely to be no different.
Transporting vaccines from labs to everyone who needs them across countries and continents requires a system of refrigeration that works every step of the journey. A single transport leg or storage port that isn’t temperature controlled will break the so-called ‘cold-chain’ and can decrease the potency of the vaccine to the point it is rendered ineffective.
Scientific assessment indicates that 70 per cent of the global population might need a COVID-19 vaccine within a tight frame, a scale that will overwhelm the systems currently in place to distribute vaccines safely. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 50% of vaccines are wasted globally every year; a large part because of lack of temperature control and the logistics to support an unbroken cold-chain. At the scale of COVID-19, this spoilage rate could waste potentially a billion vaccines, which, even if valued at a non-profit cost of around $10 a vaccine, represents a staggering wasted investment.
These alarming calculations have pushed a new UNEP-supported initiative into the spotlight. The African Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold-Chain is an initiative to help get farmers’ produce to higher value market quickly and efficiently and vaccines to recipients.
Based in Rwanda and modeled on the University of Rwanda’s existing Africa Centre of Excellence of Energy for Sustainable Development, the Centre aims to link the country’s farmers, logistics providers and agri-food businesses with a range of experts and investors keen to minimize wasted food and wasted medicines, and support solutions that return the value of this decreased wastage back to the smallholders and stakeholders throughout the chain.
The Rwanda Cooling Initiative (RCOOL) by the Rwandan Government and the United Nations Environment Program’s United for Efficiency (U4E) team provides the foundation for the new Centre. Through RCOOL, Rwanda’s Cabinet released a National Cooling Strategy in 2019 calling for concrete action on sustainable cold chains.
Researchers from the University of Birmingham and Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh are joining with RCOOL to apply their expertise with clean cold-chains and rural community cooling hubs, supported by The UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
The project team plans to fast-track over a three to four month ‘sprint’ a methodology capable of significantly improving cold-chain infrastructure systems so that countries can better meet the challenge of food loss and be better prepared for the sudden, mass distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine to reach the people who need it.
While many governments effectively distribute early childhood vaccines, the sheer scale and urgency of mass COVID-19 vaccination could be a huge challenge for countries with large rural populations.
Minimizing Food Waste
It isn’t just vaccines that will benefit from this work. Food loss between farm and market due to lack of refrigeration is a significant issue. Almost 15% of food-related CO2e emissions comes from losses in food supply chains which result from lack of refrigeration and spoilage in transport and processing.
Project co-developer and Centre of Excellence technical lead, Toby Peters, Professor of Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham, commented: “Most post-harvest losses occur close to the farm gate, where facilities to process perishable produce are lacking, because farmers can’t afford to invest or lack financial expertise and technical knowledge. “
“Food processing now is typically energy-intensive, often relying on fossil fuel-based power generation and using refrigerants with a high climate impact.” Once invested in machines or refrigeration, small businesses are then locked into their usage for the lifetime of the machine.
If 50-75 percent of food waste is reduced by 2050, without resorting to fossil fuel energy intensive methods and dangerous refrigerants, avoided emissions could be equal to 10.3-18.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide.
In ensuring that cold-chains are optimized and sustainable for vaccines and food, UNEP and its partners seek to introduce transformational solutions – pivoting away from old methods of large-scale refrigeration.
“We need resilient, reliable and sustainable cold chains to prevent food and medicine loss”, says Niklas Hagelberg from the United Nation’s Environment Programme, “And we must deliver this transformation in a way that doesn’t resort to accelerated usage of fossil fuels or dangerously polluting refrigerants. The whole system must be optimized to address the issue of food and medicine loss in a way that returns value to smallholder farmers and businesses operating across the supply chains, as they build back from the economic impact of COVID-19. Only then can we make historic leaps forward to deliver the COVID-19 vaccine globally and to feed 10 billion people without using fossil fuels.”