Abu Dhabi’s vaccine hub is to addressing a key problem of the coronavirus pandemic by stockpiling shots for countries without advanced refrigeration facilities.
Vaccines such as Pfizer-BioNTech need to be kept at temperatures of -70°C.
With an estimated 3 billion of the world’s 7.8bn population living in areas which cannot maintain a vaccine “cold chain”, there are growing fears those most in need won't be vaccinated.
But the Hope Consortium – a storage and delivery hub based in Abu Dhabi – now aims to address the issue.
Using its capacity to handle tens of millions of vaccines at any one time, the consortium will store vaccines and deliver them in batches as required through Etihad and freight forwarders on the ground.
"The way this works is you can imagine you have a leading vaccine supplier, say in China, and you have a country in Africa that requires two million vaccines," Robert Sutton, head of logistics cluster at Abu Dhabi Ports, told The National.
“But maybe they only have a cold chain capacity for 100,000 of those,” he said.
The consortium would arrange to collect the product in China, coordinating the delivery of the entire order of two million doses into Abu Dhabi.
“We would store the majority of the inventory here because of the limited cold chain capacity at the destination,” said Mr Sutton.
“Then we would move through the volume when they are safely able to handle it in the country and monitor the uptake of that volume and replenish it as required.”
The move comes at a critical moment in the global battle against Covid-19. The virus has plunged countries across the world into fresh lockdowns as cases spiral out of control from Ireland to South Africa.
Most countries are now in a race against the clock to get as many people vaccinated as possible, ease pressure on stressed health services and end lockdowns.
The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine use new technology called mRNA and, unlike conventional vaccines that use a weakened or killed part of the virus, it trains the body to fight Covid-19 by using part of its genetic code. But mRNA can break apart above freezing temperatures so proper refrigeration is key.
Abu Dhabi Ports is one of five partners involved in the Consortium, with the others being: the Department of Health Abu Dhabi, Etihad Cargo, Rafed, part of ADQ, and SkyCell.
The consortium has also teamed up with freight forwarding companies Agility Logistics, Aramex, Hellman Worldwide Logistics, and Kuehne+Nagel to help expand its distribution.
Its facilities in Abu Dhabi can store up to 70m vaccines which require standard refrigeration temperatures of 2 to 8°C, including those produced by Sinopharm and Oxford/AstraZeneca, which are expected to supply the bulk of Africa’s vaccine needs.
It also has the capacity to handle between 3m and 5m vaccines requiring ultra-cold storage down to -80°C through a “freezer farm” consisting of 50 units in its facility in Abu Dhabi.
Each of the units is around five times the size of a standard freezer. They have multiple compartments, allowing the storage of vaccines at multiple ultra-cold temperatures, from -80°C and above.
“It’s connected digitally to our alarm system, so we are able to recognise and act against any deviations in temperature. And it’s fully monitored 24/7,” said Mr Sutton.
So far the consortium has handled more than 3m vaccines, with the aim that this will reach hundreds of millions before the end of the year.
Many of those will likely be produced here in the UAE, after the country struck a deal to manufacture the Sinopharm vaccine.
The country will begin producing the vaccine under licence from the Chinese drug maker later this year to meet not just local but also anticipated global demand.
In an interview with The National, Prof Ugur Sahin – whose BioNTech company developed a vaccine with Pfizer – said the future versions of this vaccine many not need to be stored at such cold temperatures.
Prof Sahin said that dry ice could be used for storage in boxes and the company was developing versions that would not need to be kept at such low temperatures.
“We’ve started, for example, to supply vaccines to Mexico," he said. "Mexico is not one of the poorest countries but it shows that it is possible because, at the end of the day, it’s just a box with dry ice, and dry ice transportation has been available for 50 years."