India has started its vaccination drive and the first to receive the vaccines are frontline workers like healthcare professionals. In the second phase, the Indian government plans to reach out to the geriatric and at-risk population. However, reaching the vaccine to every nook and corner of the country remains a significant challenge.
According to Dr Soumya Swaminathan, Chief Scientist of WHO and Dr. Hamsadvani Kuganantham, Consultant, World Health Organisation (WHO), “The country will encounter the formidable challenge of rapidly scaling up distribution of the vaccines to secure immunity for its entire population.”
India is the supplier and producer of 60% of the world’s vaccines and yet it faces one of the greatest challenges to get its people immunised. A weak healthcare system, over-stretched by the pandemic, is one of the major obstacles. India needs to work on its cold chain management because most of the vaccines require sensitive temperature management and some of the vaccines may need to be stored at -70 degree Celsius.
According to a report by the International Air Transport Association’s Centre of Excellence for Independent Validators in Pharmaceutical Logistics, 25% of the vaccines are degraded by the time they arrive at their destination and temperature errors cause losses of around $34.1 billion annually. The Indian government is looking to address this challenge. It has already initiated a plan for cold chain augmentation. It is also repurposing a digital platform used in the Universal Immunisation Programme to track movement of Covid-19 vaccine stocks. This will help trace those who are to receive the shots and ensure last-mile vaccine delivery. There will also be a need for a step-by-step verification of the vaccine’s lifecycle and this entails detailed tracking of the vaccine. For ensuring that and to stop counterfeiting, blockchain along with the use of advanced technologies such as sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) is required.
Administering the vaccines may pose another set of challenges. Currently, India’s universal immunization programme (UIP) targets 26.7 million newborns and 29 million pregnant women every year. To successfully administer 400-500 million doses of a Covid vaccine by the first two quarters of 2021, India needs to strengthen its existing infrastructure significantly. It should look to strengthen the vaccine cold-chain network, increase the stock of ancillary items like syringes and glass vials and focus on training more healthcare workers.
India recorded the first movement of Covid-19 vaccines on January 12, 2021, at 5.00 AM when refrigerated trucks left the Serum Institute of India’s manufacturing facility for the Pune Airport. The central government noted that it received a total of 54,72,000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines on the first day (January 12). On the very next day, the vaccines of Bharat Biotech were also transported from Hyderabad to different parts of the country.
Private logistical companies have also plunged into the scene. Aditya Vaziani, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Robinsons Global Logistics Solutions, recently told the media, “In most rural areas the issues would be the storage of these vaccines, even if a vehicle can reach a destination, how would it be administered? There is a possibility of using drones to do final deliveries which are happening with a company out of Bangalore that I am familiar with (Redwing Labs) which has a range of 50 kilometres and the ability to maintain temperature, which makes it’s a cheaper and viable option to make deliveries possible effectively, in smaller quantities and more frequently. The other problem arises, how fast we can educate the teams that have not handled sensitive cargo before to understand the importance as these items can’t be thrown around.”
Ketan Kulkarni, CMO and head – business development, Blue Dart, said, “The role of the vaccine supply chain would be to ensure effective vaccine storage, handling, severe temperature-control in the cold chain, and maintenance of adequate logistics management information systems. The airports and carriers for the vaccine have to be equipped to handle a large capacity of vaccines and store them for last-mile delivery.”
Mumbai Airport has set forth an SOP that includes time and temp-sensitive handling system, real-time temperature updates, trained and experienced workforce and stringent security arrangements. Similarly, the Hyderabad International Airport recently signed an MoU with Dubai Airports to build an exclusive vaccine air freight corridor product called HYDXB-VAXCOR (Hyderabad to Dubai global vaccine corridor).