Pfizer’s COVID-19 Vaccine Won’t Be Useful in South Africa Without a Cold Supply Chain, Experts Say
The country is ill-equipped to store and distribute the vaccine on a large scale.
Last week Pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and BioNTech announced that their COVID-19 vaccine was more than 90% effective at preventing infection during the preliminary trials.
While this is a development to be celebrated, it's important to be aware that not every country will be able to access and store the vaccine should it be approved for the market.
According to experts, South Africa is one country that's in no position to store and distribute the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and cannot afford to purchase the equipment required to do so.
Director of Vaccines for Africa at the University of Cape Town, Prof. Gregory Hussey, told Bhekisisa Center for Health Journalism (Bhekisisa), that the country doesn’t currently have the freezers required to store the vaccine. Right now, the only freezers available that suit the storage requirements are at large research institutions such as the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
The vaccine needs to be stored at temperatures well below freezing, at minus 70°C (-94°F) to be exact, and according to Bhekisisa, the vaccines that are part of South Africa’s routine immunisation programmes are typically kept at temperatures between 2°C and 8°C (36°F and 46°F).
Because of this, the country is currently ill-equipped to transport, store, and monitor the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine or any other vaccine that needs to be kept at such cold temperatures.
Bhekisisa also reported that South Africa most likely cannot afford to purchase sufficient freezers to make the vaccine available at community health centres or clinics. The country also may not be able to afford the cold chain systems necessary to maintain the vaccines — these are systems that keep a product consistently stored at a specific low temperature.
Cold chain systems are essential in making sure that vaccines remain effective and don’t degrade. A 2018 study shows that if a vaccine is stored at the wrong temperature, while it does not pose a safety risk for individuals, there is a possibility that it can offer less protection.
Hussey explained to Bhekisisa that the lack of these systems could prove to be a problem for rural hospitals and clinics or facilities that don’t have adequate infrastructure to properly store doses when a COVID-19 vaccine becomes available.
Barry Schoub, chair of South Africa’s ministerial advisory committee on coronavirus vaccines, told Bhekisisa that Pfizer/BioNTech are considering freeze-dried vaccines, which would take the form of frozen powders that a liquid could be added to.
This form of vaccine has the potential to ease cold chain requirements, because they can be stored at temperatures that South Africa is prepared for. However he also said that the timeline for this is still unclear.
In contrast to South Africa’s inability to store the vaccines, in the United States, large city hospitals have already prioritised buying ultra-cold freezers to keep the injections in and the European Union has signed an agreement with the manufacturers to supply it with 200 million doses as well as an option to request an additional 100 million doses.
Launched in April by seven global partners, the ACT-Accelerator is a unique coalition aimed at accelerating global efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic. Its members are working together to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines as quickly as possible, while also strengthening the world’s most fragile health systems.
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