As several experimental vaccines against the novel coronavirus near the end of late stage clinical trials, the National Expert Group on vaccine administration for Covid-19 has begun to map cold chain storage facilities across the country, including those available with the food processing industry, The Indian Express has learnt.
A temperature-controlled cold chain, including equipment and procedures used in transport, storage, and handling, is a critical aspect of the administration of the potential vaccine. Poor handling, including exposing the vaccine to temperatures outside the recommended range, can result in reduction of potency and wastage.
The decision to augment cold chain storage comes in the backdrop of the government asking states to submit lists of priority population groups for receiving the vaccine. On Sunday, Health Minister Dr Harsh Vardhan had said that the government expects to receive and utilise 400-500 million doses, and cover approximately 20-25 crore people by July 2021.
Why a cold chain is key
Vaccines are delicate products that can be damaged in excessive heat, light, or cold. A temperature-controlled 'cold' supply chain is crucial to their transport and storage, especially in a vast, hot country like India. In anticipation of the arrival of a vaccine for Covid-19, the government has started to identify additional cold chain storage facilities for the expected enormous volumes that will be needed to inoculate Indians.
A subgroup has been formed to look at cold chain storage, sources in the Expert Group said. IAS officer S Aparna, who has been recently appointed as Secretary, Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP), under the Ministry of Chemicals and Fertilisers, heads the subgroup.
Sources said the subgroup has had detailed deliberations on augmenting the existing cold chain storage of the government’s Universal Immunisation programme.
“India has a network of more than 16,000 cold chain storages with temperature trackers in each storage. The three indigenous manufacturers (Bharat Biotech, Zydus Cadila, and Serum Institute) have given detailed information on cold storage requirements, and the temperature at which the vaccine needs to be stored. Our existing cold storage fulfills the requirements of these three vaccine candidates. However, as per our estimation, we might be requiring more than 16,000 (cold chain storages), and therefore, we need to augment,” a source said.
The government will rope in multiple agencies in the augmentation effort.
“Within the government, we are doing an exercise to find out where cold storage facilities are available outside the network of the Ministry of Health. We are doing a mapping of cold storage facilities available with food processing and the Ministry of Commerce. The process is on track,” the source said.
Oxford’s vaccine candidate, which will be manufactured in India by Pune-based Serum Institute, will have to be refrigerated at 2-8 degrees Celsius. It is learnt that the Expert Group is at the moment not considering the m-RNA vaccine candidate being developed by Moderna, which must be stored in much lower temperatures.
“This (Moderna) vaccine requires ultra-cold storage. We don’t have that kind of cold storage,” sources said.
The Ministry of Health & Family Welfare has directed states to provide bulk-storage cold chain equipment like walk-in coolers/ freezers at the level of state vaccine stores. The National Cold Chain and Vaccine Management Resource Centre is providing technical guidance to the states.
The Centre has also asked states to repair nonfunctional cold chain equipment, train staff in cold chain handling, and hold task force meetings at the block and district levels to discuss preparedness.