The Union health ministry on Tuesday said the cold-chain requirements of the coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer posed a big challenge to India’s mass-vaccination campaign, but the government is examining all possibilities for its procurement, reported PTI.

Pfizer’s vaccine, which was shown to be more than 90% effective in preventing Covid-19 based on initial data, must be shipped and stored at freezing temperatures of -70 degrees Celsius from the moment they are bottled to the time they are ready to be injected. This is significantly lower than the standard 2-8 degrees Celsius storage requirement.

Experts have also pointed that the vaccine uses messenger RNA-based technology, which would make the vaccines expensive in developing countries like India. mRNA is messenger ribonucleic acids that translate DNA information into proteins involved in bodily functions.

At a press briefing, NITI Aayog member (Health) Dr VK Paul, who also heads the National Task Force on coronavirus, said sufficient doses of the Pfizer vaccine will not be available as required by India’s population anytime soon. However, the government will work out a strategy for its procurement and distribution in case it gets the regulatory approvals, he said.

“The arrangement of cold-chains for storing the vaccine developed by Pfizer at a low temperature of minus 70 degrees Celsius is a big challenge and it will not be easy for any nation,” Paul said. “But then, if at all it has to be obtained, we are examining what we need to do...and will work out a strategy,” he said.”

Nonetheless, the arrival of the vaccine in the country might take some months, Paul added.

A research by German logistics firm DHL and consultancy firm McKinsey has found that insufficient “last mile” cooling facilities in the final delivery stages and a lack of storage at clinics in large parts of Africa, Asia and South America would “pose the biggest challenge” to delivering these vaccines at scale.

Also read:

  1. Pfizer vaccine’s -70° Celsius storage requirement will be a challenge for India, says AIIMS director
  2. Why Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine will be expensive and difficult to deliver in India

Besides Pfizer, the vaccine developed by Moderna’s interim results were also promising, showing nearly 95% efficacy, Paul noted at the briefing. “We are watching the developments,” he said. “They have announced the preliminary results and have not got the regulatory approvals.”

The health official also expressed hope on the success of the five vaccines that are under different phases of trial in India. The doses of these vaccines will be available in sufficient numbers, Paul said.

“The phase-3 trial of the Oxford vaccine of the Serum Institute is almost near completion, while the phase-3 clinical trial of the indigenously-developed vaccine candidate of the Bharat Biotech [Covaxin] and the Indian Council of Medical Research has already started,” he added. “Another indigenously-developed vaccine candidate of the Zydus Cadila has completed the phase-2 clinical trial.”

Meanwhile, Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said a national scheme for vaccine distribution was in its “final stages” of preparation. “We have shared it with the state governments and have taken their inputs,” he added. “We are also in the process of finalising the database of the priority population groups, who will be administered the vaccine if and when it becomes available, and there also, we are in collaboration with the states and other central ministries.”

India has not yet signed a deal for a coronavirus vaccine so it is unclear when it will be available for use in the country, despite some leaders promising it will be available from as early as January. Availability of the vaccine in India will be subject to approval by domestic regulators, and the Indian government agreeing to purchase them. So far, many other nations including the United States, United Kingdom, the European Union, Australia and Israel have made deals to buy millions of doses of the vaccines.