India begins augmenting its cold chain capacity

From the lab to the jab, the much awaited Covid-19 vaccine would need continuous sterile refrigeration to remain potent and safe. Hence, both government and private sector players have begun to ramp up capacities in this area.

Experts and industry are divided on their assessment of India’s cold chain capabilities. While some feel that India already has a robust cold chain, thanks to its universal immunisation programme (UIP), others say that existing pharma cold chain capacities may not be adequate. The availability of power in the hinterland is also a concern.

According to rough estimates, nearly 3 billion people in developing countries will miss out on the Covid-19 vaccine as they live in locations which lack adequate temperature-controlled storage for a mass vaccination campaign.

Mapping India’s cold chain capabilities

According to CBRE South Asia, in 2019 the overall cold storage capacity in India stood at around 37-39 million tonnes — one of the largest in the world.

However, only a small number of cold chain providers have capacities of around 5000 tonnes, and of these, very few are pharma compliant as per the guidelines of the World Health Organisation. Besides, a vast portion of the cold storage available in India is used for agricultural produce.

Some experts believe that combining the agri cold chain and the pharma cold chain could be an option since the temperature range for storing most vaccines is expected to be in the range of 2-8 degrees Celsius, which the agri-cold chain can handle. However, vaccine makers say that maintaining a sterile environment could be a challenge if agri and pharma cold chains were to be combined.

The government has already begun the mammoth task of mapping India’s existing cold chain capacities. “We know most of the cold chain installations in the country as the government has procured and supplied to states for the UIP. We are doing a stock-taking exercise on the condition of the equipment, what needs refurbishments or replacements, and the financial implications of that,” said a senior government official.

An expert group overseeing the vaccine distribution plan has started talking to not only private and public sector entities, but also food tech firms like Swiggy and Zomato to identify refrigeration facilities at the district level and for last-mile delivery.

The current UIP infrastructure is supported by more than 27,000 cold chain points, of which around 3 per cent are located in the districts. India also has around 55,000 cold chain management staff.

Cold chain operators beefing up capacities

Blue Star Ltd, which has a 70 per cent market share in pharma cold chain products in India, says there has been a surge in the demand for medical refrigeration systems.

B Thiagarajan, managing director, Blue Star, said, “Blue Star has seen a 30 per cent surge in demand since March this year as the Centre, state and private players have started augmenting capacity.” He added that the company was trying to ensure that there was no shortage in the supplies of refrigeration systems and was stocking up on the necessary raw materials.

Thiagarajan is of the view that India already has a robust vaccine distribution system. Manufacturing units have enough cold storage capacity, and the vaccines can move from here to the government distribution chain that includes central government medical depots, state level medical depots, regional or district level centres and primary health centres, he said.

“The government distribution chain is well-equipped with walk-in cold rooms or freezer rooms, deep freezers, and ice-lined refrigerators (ILRs). Last-mile vaccine transporters or shippers are capable of maintaining the temperature up to 48 hours before administration,” Thiagarajan added.

Logistics players like Blue Dart, too, are in ramp up mode. Ketan Kulkarni, CMO and head — business development, Blue Dart, said that his company was beefing up infrastructure with its “pre-existing specialised Temperature Controlled Logistics (TCL) to combat the pandemic.” Blue Dart has already started arranging for all that is needed for raising capacity — packaging materials, availability of data loggers, insulated shippers, walk-in cold rooms, coolant, network reach, manpower preparedness, investments in technology and so on.

Blue Dart has pharma grade conditioning rooms in Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Pune, Kolkata, Delhi and Bengaluru. These are located close to the Blue Dart Airport Stations, which decreases the turnaround time and helps in speedy delivery.

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The bulk of the Covid-19 vaccine is likely to be sourced from three cities — Hyderabad, Pune and Ahmedabad.

Multinational players like Thermo Fisher have a cold chain range from 5 degree Celsius to minus 196 degrees Celsius. “We offer sample security through controlled-rate freezing, remote monitoring and data-logging solutions that provide real-time information on storage conditions,” said Amit Chopra, managing director, India and Middle East, Thermo Fisher Scientific. “We have initiated discussions with several state medical councils in India to offer support through our products and services,” Chopra added.

The Centre has set the ball rolling, too. States have been asked to train their cold chain staff, including vaccine and cold chain handlers, vaccine and cold chain managers, program managers and cold chain technology managers.

Need for detailed planning

Ajay Kakra, leader, food and agriculture, PwC India, pointed out that the vaccination drive has to be minutely planned. “You need to work out the availability of fleets and drivers, have a clear idea about volumes and who is going to serve the volumes, and have quality checking and temperature monitoring systems,” he said. The government should think about creating its own capacity to handle at least 50 per cent of the vaccines, he added.

The shortage of power, especially in remote areas, is also a matter of concern. Anshuman Magazine, chairman & CEO – India, South East Asia, Middle East & Africa, CBRE, feels that the lack of an effective transport system and constant power supply in remote areas is a major challenge. “Even with a peak power deficit of 0.8 per cent, uninterrupted power is an issue. Current inadequate protocols for constructing and operating a cold storage facility in India, funding constraints, and the lack of modern technology are additional challenge areas,” he said. – Business Standard

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