According to reports, wealthier hospitals in the United States have started buying up expensive specialized freezers for Pfizer’s vaccine, raising concerns that hospitals with fewer resources or in rural areas even the world’s richest country will be left behind.
Pfizer’s announcement last week that clinical trials of its vaccine candidate showed that the shots can effectively prevent people from contracting the coronavirus raised hopes that the end of the pandemic may be in sight.
But there was one concern: the vaccine needs to be kept extremely cold at minus 70 degrees Celsius – colder than winter in Antarctica – and could only be kept in a special freezer for up to five days, after which it has to be refreshed with dry ice to keep the vaccine at the right (frozen) temperature.
Delivering vaccines in these conditions “is possible, but it’s definitely going to be much more expensive and more difficult,” notes Debra Kristensen, a veteran of vaccine innovation and supply chains at PATH. According to reports, wealthier hospitals in the United States have started buying up expensive specialized freezers for Pfizer’s vaccine, raising concerns that hospitals with fewer resources or in rural areas even the world’s richest country will be left behind.
At the international level, countries would have to build storage and transportation networks that can maintain -70 degrees temperature. Building such networks successfully would require huge investment and coordination that only rich and developed nations are capable of, meaning the vaccine won’t be really viable for poorer and less-developed countries.
But on Monday, another frontrunner in the vaccine race made an announcement that may temper those fears. U.S. biotech company Moderna said its jab uses the same technology and appears to be as effective as Pfizer’s but does not require ultra-cold temperatures for storage. The vaccine needs to be frozen too, but only at minus 20 Celsius like a regular freezer, can remain stable in the fridge for 30 days, and also be stored in ordinary freezers for long-term use.
Moderna’s breakthrough helps to solve the significant logistical issue and promises a less daunting task in the delivery of a vaccine to millions around the world, especially the remotest regions of poor countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa, where the supply and transporting of ordinary vaccines can be very challenging.
“The Moderna vaccine is a much more viable option for low- and middle-income countries than the Pfizer vaccine. Cold-storage needs are less extreme,” Rachel Silverman, a policy fellow at the Center for Global Development, told Bloomberg.
A specialist in drug research, Ayfer Ali, adds that the new candidate vaccine can be “accommodated within the existing vaccine distribution networks. Even in remote and underdeveloped areas, fridges are available or can be supplied cheaply.”
Like Pfizer, Moderna has struck deals with some developed countries for the supply of its vaccine. However, Silverman notes it may be bound to help enable access in low-middle income countries. This is because it received funding from the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a foundation that helps source financing for independent research projects to develop vaccines against emerging infectious diseases.
The emergence of two promising candidates helps to ease concerns that just one vaccine will not be nearly enough to meet global demand, but the additional breakthrough by Moderna will come as a huge relief, particularly for less developed nations.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Covid-19 vaccines are still under development with the possibility of other candidates emerging, which would be more cost-effective and use other technologies that are easier for drugmakers to manufacture and ship, experts have said.