Four factors affecting the Covid vaccine roll-out in Africa
Countries around the world are scrambling to procure enough Covid-19 vaccines for their populations – African countries included. But political wrangling is only part of the struggle. Once governments have bought the vaccines, how do they actually get them to the people who need them, especially on a hot, dusty continent with limited infrastructure? Here are four key considerations impacting the roll-out.
1. Partnerships are crucial
Getting vaccines to Africa is a big job and most governments have partnered with private companies to assist with supply chain management.
Aramex – a multinational logistics and courier company based in the UAE – has been assisting with the vaccine roll-out since the first batches were dispatched.
Regional CEO Andy van der Velde describes the complexity of the job: “We work with governments and healthcare departments, producers and carriers. Because we’re involved with so many parties, the main focus is on the ‘control tower’ – putting it all together, measuring everything and making sure there are contingency plans in case anything goes wrong along the chain.”
“Regulatory compliance across so many different jurisdictions is also an important consideration,” adds Suzandi Viljoen, head of the global healthcare vertical at Aramex. “We don’t just abide by country laws, we adhere to a global standard – we look right down supply chain, not just at the particular distribution country.”
2. The doses must be kept cold – very cold
Why is the supply chain so complex when it comes to the Covid vaccine? Well, the doses need to be kept extremely cold, often well below freezing.
“Each vaccine requires different temperature control,” says Andy. “The Pfizer vaccine is stable at -15 to -25°C for up to two weeks. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine can be stored between 2°C and 8°C, but only for six hours. For long term storage, almost all the vaccines need to be kept in an ultra-cold freezer at temperatures as low as -80°C.
“The hard part is not just controlling the temperature but making sure it’s controlled as per the vaccine you’re moving. Temperature integrity needs to be consistent from source to line haul, through the various facilities and warehouses, and across the so-called ‘last mile’. In Africa, particularly, this is a big challenge.
“Aramex has signed a charter stating that we’ll support the World Economic Forum to bring any vaccines into Africa that the various countries are able to procure. We need to be ready for any and all temperatures.”
3. Creativity changes lives
“You think the vaccine is a tiny ampule, but there’s a considerable amount of packaging, dry ice, enviro bags and boxes required along the way,” says Andy. “Imagine trying to coordinate the aircraft, never mind the facilities!”
With everyone cautious of cost, entrepreneurs have entered the fray. South African natural gas producer Renergen has designed a vessel to store and transport up to 100 vaccine doses at -70°C for a month without the need for electricity. The secret is in slow-boiling ultra-cold liquid helium in a special reservoir, which is slowly released to maintain a constant temperature.
“Shipping containers have also been converted into temporary warehouses,” Andy says. “This has proven to be much more cost effective than building permanent cold-chain storage facilities.”
4. Cargo planes are in short supply
Considering the packaging required, Andy says that it would take more than 8 000 fully loaded 747 cargo planes to deliver a single vaccine dose to every one of earth’s 7,8 billion inhabitants. That’s another problem, because cargo planes are in short supply.
“With fewer passengers flying, lots of airlines have converted their aircraft into cargo carriers,” Andy says. “It takes about nine months to convert a passenger plane to a cargo plane. It’s not just about taking out the seats – you need to make the access doors much bigger and there are a whole series of different tests that need to be done. And with the boom in e-commerce due to worldwide lockdowns, many of those converted planes are being chartered for top dollar by retailers looking to ship product. Healthcare needs to find a way to compete.”
“At the same time, you don’t want Covid vaccines to be prioritised to such an extent that they use all the available infrastructure at the expense of other critical vaccines, like polio and smallpox,” says Suzandi. “The only way is to collaborate and communicate. If everyone can get that right, there will be light at the end of the tunnel.”
Want to listen to the full interview? Episode 10: The Challenge of Getting Covid Vaccines to Africa is available on all major podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
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