What is a vaccine cold chain?
The logistics of shipping and storing vaccines
A mass, worldwide vaccination effort is crucial to defeating the COVID-19 pandemic — but the logistics of getting it done are incredibly complex. Two of the most complicating factors? Storage and transportation.
Distributing vaccine doses is much more elaborate than simply putting vials in a box and loading them onto a truck. From the time a vaccine leaves the manufacturer to the time it’s administered to a patient, it needs to be kept in ideal and highly specific conditions. For example, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine needs to be stored at a frigid -70° C. That’s why the success of large-scale immunization efforts is dependent on a reliable cold chain: a system of safely storing and transporting vaccines at recommended temperatures.
What makes up a cold chain?
A seamless cold chain combines three equally important elements:
- Equipment: in most cases, the best storage option is a pharmaceutical-grade unit, specially designed for housing vaccines. Unlike the freezer where you keep your ice cream, these can cost upwards of $15,000. Specialized portable coolers are also important for moving vaccines from one location to another.
- Personnel: staff and volunteers tasked with handling vaccines must be thoroughly trained on safe storage and transportation practices. This is particularly important because different vaccines require different conditions.
- Processes: vaccinating facilities must have clear, detailed, and up-to-date instructions for vaccine handling — plus contingency plans in case of emergency. What if the facility loses power? What if there’s a weather event? These questions and more should have thorough answers.
What happens if the chain breaks?
Vaccines can only protect against disease if they’re delivered safely. Overexposure to heat, cold, or light can compromise vaccine quality. Not only does this diminish the vaccine’s effectiveness; it also leads to wasted vaccine supply and financial loss. Between spoiled vaccines, replacement costs, and administrative expenses, cold chain errors cost healthcare shippers billions of dollars a year.
How we help
For more than 30 years, Rotary members have been supporting the safe transport of polio vaccines to every corner of the globe. When it comes to COVID-19, we’re just as committed to bringing vaccines to all. Learn more about how we’re playing our part: http://on.rotary.org/covid19efforts.