The COVID-19 pandemic is engulfing everyone. With tropical heat, remote island communities, a dearth of ultra-cold freezers, and a limited quantity available, many Asian countries and developing nations aren’t betting on Pfizer’s experimental vaccine solving their COVID-19 crisis any time soon.
The world cheered on Monday when Pfizer Inc announced its shot, jointly developed with BioNTech SE, was more than 90 percent effective based on initial trial results. Yet health experts cautioned that the vaccine, should it be approved, was no silver bullet not least because the genetic material it’s made from needs to be stored at temperatures of minus 70 degrees Celsius or below.
Such requirements pose a particularly daunting challenge for countries in Asia, as well as in places like Africa and Latin America, where intense heat is often compounded by poor infrastructure that will make it difficult to keep the “cold chain” intact during deliveries to rural areas and islands.
That is a problem for everyone in the world, given the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates about 70pc of people must be inoculated to end the pandemic, and Asia alone is home to more than 4.6 billion or three-fifth of the global population. Some Asian countries are prioritising containing the novel COVID-19 rather than looking for alternatives to the messenger RNA technology used by Pfizer that requires such ultra-cold storage.
In addition, Pfizer can manufacture only a limited quantity; of the vaccine next year about 1.3 billion doses, according to a report by NPR. But more than 80pc of the supply is already spoken for by the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Canada, and Japan.
This means that there is hardly anything left for the rest of the world, particularly poorer countries. Rachel Silverman, at the non-profit Centre for Global Development in Washington, told NPR that “What’s left in that pie is not a lot. For most people in low-and middle-income countries, this vaccine; is not likely to be available, at least by the end of next year.”
Philippians’ Health Secretary Francisco Duque told Reuters that “On the cold chai requirement of -70 degrees that is a hefty requirement. We do not have such facilities. We will have to wait and see for now. The technology Pfizer is using is new technology. We don’t have experience with that, so risks can be high.”
Pfizer told Reuter that it has developed detailed logistical plans; and tools to support vaccine transport, storage, and continuous temperature monitoring. It said, “We have also developed packaging; and storage innovations to be fit for a range of locations where we believe vaccinations will take place.”
Yet even wealthier nations like South Korea and Japan are managing expectations. Infection control manager at St. Luke’s International Hospital in Tokyo, Fumie Sakamoto said that “Storage is going to be a big challenge for us. I am not sure how well prepared our government is with regard to maintaining the cold chain. Hospitals in Japan usually do not have ultra-cold freezers, but I think it’s high time; we started thinking about the logistics for the vaccine.”