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Drones, micro-chillers may be needed for last-mile delivery of Covid vaccines

The ‘last mile’ of Covid-19 vaccine delivery will be crucial to re-start global economy and will depend on cargo drones, mobile cold rooms, micro-chillers and other innovative means in low-income countries for delivery, a new research report said on Wednesday.

Successfully overcoming logistical challenges will be crucial to halt the spread of the virus and reconnect countries to international trade, said the report compiled by experts from the University of Birmingham, Heriot-Watt University, BRAC University (Bangladesh) and the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.

Vaccines are expected to be produced on a mass scale, including in the Serum Institute of India, following recent successful trials.

High-income countries getting vaccines first would avoid 33% of preventable deaths, but equitable global distribution would stop 66% of such deaths, said the report titled ‘Understanding the cold-chain challenge for Covid-19 vaccination’.

“Universal vaccine access is already a major challenge in low-income countries, due to the lack of robust refrigerated cooling networks especially to remote communities. Mass vaccination for Covid-19 will need to deliver vaccines globally at scale and speed never before considered,” the report added.

The experts drew up a blueprint for in-country Covid-19 vaccination cold chain design for low and middle-income countries, using Bangladesh as a case study.

The report identified several issues, including an urgent need to strengthen vaccine cold chains in low-income countries, particularly into rural and remote areas. It is estimated that nearly 3 billion of the world’s 7.8 billion people live in areas that lack temperature-controlled storage to deliver the vaccines.

Existing vaccination, the report recommended, must continue alongside Covid-19 programmes, because nearly 80 million children may already have missed vaccinations against preventable diseases due to the pandemic.

“Strengthening cold chains must not come at an environmental cost; this is a major opportunity to address gaps in the wider cold economy and use sustainable technology. A lack of qualified engineers will lead to long response times to equipment malfunctions and broken cold-chains”, the report said.

It added that waste management will be a major challenge; alongside vaccines, disposable syringes, Personal Protective Equipment and other vaccination supplies will require disposal.

Project developer Toby Peters, professor of Cold Economy at the University of Birmingham, said: “We can’t ‘build back better’ if lack of access to vaccination has condemned some countries to isolation because they remain Covid-19 hubs. We must reach everyone who needs a vaccine and the real challenge lies in overcoming that ‘last mile’.”

“Cold-chains are energy intensive and rely on planet-warming refrigerants. Rapid expansion must not be based on environmentally harmful technologies and we are leading a fast-track research programme to design novel methods and instruments to support the cold-chain for Covid-19, but also to provide a lasting logistics legacy.”

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