×

Solar technologies can speed up vaccine rollout in Africa. Here's how

Solar energy is an invaluable resource in rural areas like this facility in Gambia. Gavi/2018/Guido Dingemans

Solar technologies can speed up vaccine rollout in Africa. Here's how

Solar energy is an invaluable resource in rural areas like this facility in Gambia. Gavi/2018/Guido Dingemans

Solar technologies can speed up vaccine rollout in Africa. Here's how

Solar energy is an invaluable resource in rural areas like this facility in Gambia. Gavi/2018/Guido Dingemans

Solar technologies can speed up vaccine rollout in Africa. Here's how

Solar energy is an invaluable resource in rural areas like this facility in Gambia. Gavi/2018/Guido Dingemans

Keeping vaccines seamlessly refrigerated is an especially daunting challenge where electricity is unavailable or unreliable

Cyrus Sinai, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Rob Fetter, Duke University

There’s hope that some industrialised countries will achieve near-universal vaccination against COVID-19 in the coming months. Yet the effort to vaccinate even the most essential workers in developing countries has only just begun. By current estimates, achieving herd immunity (to current strains) will require at least 75% of the world’s population to be vaccinated. Some developing countries haven’t reached that level of coverage even for common vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and polio.

Many low-income countries will soon get vaccine access through the COVAX initiative. The first doses distributed in sub-Saharan Africa under COVAX were injected at the end of February. Around 30 million more doses are expected to arrive in March 2021.

But the success of national distribution efforts depends on a functional cold chain. This is an uninterrupted system of storage, transport and delivery of vaccines at low temperatures all the way from national warehouses to local clinics and into the arms of people.

Most vaccines must be stored between 2°C and 8°C. This is the case for polio and measles vaccines as well as the COVID-19 vaccines from Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca-Oxford. Others have temperature requirements that are notoriously more difficult to maintain. The COVID-19 vaccines from Moderna must be stored at between -25°C and -15°C. The Pfizer-BioNTech requires -70°C, but can be kept between -25°C and -15°C for up to two weeks.

Keeping vaccines seamlessly refrigerated is an especially daunting challenge where electricity is unavailable or unreliable. A 2013 review spanning 11 African countries found that just 28% of clinics and hospitals had reliable electricity, and 26% had no electricity access at all. Updated data on energy access in health facilities is scattered and sparse, but we are working on a new comprehensive review.

Unreliable power is extremely costly for vaccination efforts. Each year, nearly 50% of freeze-dried and 25% of liquid vaccines are wasted. This is in large part due to cold chain electricity disruptions.

Thus, to deliver COVID-19 vaccines at the required scale, the problem of energy access at health facilities must be confronted. But realistically, entire national grids can’t be overhauled overnight to provide universal, uninterrupted power. So what can be done?

Disagree with this article?
Create an Opposing View
Add Related Article