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India, with the second-largest number of Covid-19 infections in the world, has turned its focus to vaccine development and procurement as it seeks to inoculate as many of its 1.3 billion population as possible and avoid the full ravages of he pandemic. But in a country where the temperature exceeds 50 degree Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) in some parts in peak summer and infrastructure is rickety, the primary challenge lies in transporting any potential vaccines at ultra-cold temperatures.
To meet this looming impediment, some company executives and officials in the Indian dairy industry are examining the possibility of using the same cold-storage infrastructure employed in the artificial insemination of cattle to transport the vaccines, although getting government officials on board with the idea remains a work in progress.
India, the world’s largest milk producer, performs about 80 million artificial inseminations annually to crossbreed cattle. The technology used in the operation involves collecting semen from elite bulls and keeping it inside “straws” – cryogenic containers filled with liquid nitrogen that keeps the temperature as low as minus 196 degree Celsius. The straws are then transported across the length and breadth of the country, with the last-mile delivery done with three-litre jars fitted on motorbikes.
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After the technology first emerged among cattle breeders in the American Midwest in the mid-20th century, the liquid nitrogen-powered cold-chain system was adapted over the decades for use in global health care chains – from sperm storage to organ transplantation.
Rajiv Mitra, the chief executive of Prabhat Dairy, the Indian subsidiary of the French-headquartered multinational giant and dairy products leader Groupe Lactalis, said the cold-chain system used to transport bull semen could be useful in carrying and delivering Covid-19 vaccines.
“This technology is easily scalable since there are just two crucial elements involved – insulated containers, which are manufactured by state-run bodies like Indian Oil Corporation, and liquid nitrogen, a by-product of oxygen-manufacturing companies,” he said.
Globally, several vaccine candidates are awaiting final approval from regulators, after showing high levels of efficacy. Pfizer-Biotech’s vaccine needs ultra-low cold storage of about minus 70 degree Celsius, while the vaccines of Moderna and AstraZeneca require storage at between minus 2 and 8 degrees Celsius.
The Serum Institute of India, which is based in Pune, has teamed with AstraZeneca to produce millions of doses of its vaccine.
Over the weekend, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the Serum Institute, saying in a tweet that he toured its manufacturing facility and that the company “shared details about their progress so far on how they plan to further ramp up vaccine manufacturing.”
Modi also visited Bharat Biotech in Hyderabad, which is producing India’s first home-grown vaccine candidate, Covaxin, as well as Cadila Healthcare in Ahmedabad, which is developing the vaccine Zycov-D. Covaxin is in stage-three trials and Zycov-D is in stage-two trials.
India’s health secretary, Rajesh Bhushan, told Bloomberg last month that India would use its existing cold-chain network – used for the country’s Universal Immunisation Programme – to distribute Covid-19 vaccines. But a Credit Suisse report published this month noted that although India had sufficient capacity to manufacture a vaccine and components like vials, stoppers and syringes, “The bottleneck is cold storage infrastructure” – especially the lack of refrigerated vans.
According to the report, India needs about 1.7 billion doses to vaccinate the majority of its adult population. It so far has recorded nearly 9.5 million coronavirus cases and more than 137,000 deaths, although the rate of increase has slowed recently. On Tuesday, it recorded just 31,118 new coronavirus cases, the lowest daily total since November 17, according to the country’s health ministry.
While India’s total cold-storage capacity – which includes state-controlled and private facilities – stands at 500 million doses, there is a huge shortfall. Policymakers have already approached private companies in the cold-chain network to both assess and bolster their capacities. Most have already been gearing up to boost their logistics networks.
The health ministry did not responded to questions from This Week in Asia on whether it is exploring options offered by the dairy sector’s cold-chain enterprises.
Ashok Pande, vice-president at the BAIF Development Research Foundation, a pioneering research charity on livestock development, said that the use of liquid nitrogen for the transport of Covid-19 vaccines should only be out of “compulsion”, and that alternative methods should be used, if available.
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He said that refrigeration equipment and polystyrene boxes filled with ice for delivery would be better suited to deliver Covid-19 vaccines that require storage at minus 2 to 8 degrees Celsius.
“Liquid nitrogen keeps on evaporating and needs to be replenished frequently” Pande said of the downsides of its use, in addition to its costliness.
Pawanexh Kohli, the founding CEO of the government-backed think tank National Centre for Cold-chain Development, suggested that stakeholders should focus more on the distribution of the vaccine rather than on stockpiling ability.
Demand is going to be steady and regular, so the supply chain should be delivery-oriented and not storage-oriented,” he said.
Kohli added that using the huge artificial-insemination network to deliver Covid-19 vaccines could be “technically feasible but not logical” since the doses involved in the delivery of bull semen are usually “minimal” while the vaccine roll-out would require massive storage capacity.
This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
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