Dry ice set to be critical for transporting Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine in SA

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Health Minister Zweli Mkhize at Khayelitsha Hospital where Johnson & Johnson vaccines were administered.
Health Minister Zweli Mkhize at Khayelitsha Hospital where Johnson & Johnson vaccines were administered.
  • Health Minister Zweli Mkhize says his department will make use of alternative measures to keep the Pfizer vaccine stored at -70°C.
  • He said the vaccine comes in a shipping package that, if replenished with dry ice, can be kept at -70°C.
  • The health department has accessed specialised ultra-cold freezers at universities as commercial availability is limited.

With limited ultra-cold storage facilities in the country, dry ice appears to be government's saving grace in keeping the Pfizer vaccine at -70°C.

The Pfizer vaccine – one of several vaccines government is set to procure – needs to be stored at -70°C, as it can only last at standard fridge temperatures for up to five days.

In response to a written parliamentary question from EFF MP Mgcini Tshwaku, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize said other options were being explored given the shortage of specialised freezers.

He said: 

The Pfizer vaccine is stored at -70°C and this does require specialised freezers. There is limited availability of these specialised freezers commercially. However, we have been able to access these freezers from universities.

"Additionally, the Pfizer vaccine does come in a shipper package that can keep the vaccine at -70°C if it is regularly replenished with dry ice. We will use these approaches to manage the vaccine cold chain for the Pfizer vaccine," Mkhize said.

READ | Local Covid-19 discovery may lead to better global vaccine development

Johannesburg-based natural gas producer Renergen is developing an ultra-cold biological transport freezer to keep Covid-19 vaccines at the ultra-cold temperatures necessary as they are shipped across the continent.

The vaccines, developed jointly by US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and Germany's BioNTech, must be stored at -70°C, a far cry from what much of rural Africa can support.

According to an AFP report published on News24 last month, Renergen CEO Stefano Marani said their design would use helium to transport vials by air and nitrogen by road, keeping them at between -150°C to 8°C.

The storage case, called Cryo-Vacc, could operate without power supply for more than 25 days, Marani said.

Vaccines are often transported in Africa in dry ice that usually lasts about three days.

Marani said the company's biggest container could hold between 5 000 and 6 000 vials.

The aluminium cases are also equipped with tracking devices and monitors to evenly distribute the freezing temperatures.

Currently, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is being administered among the country's healthcare workers.

"The vaccine is stored at fridge temperature for which we have adequate cold storage facilities," Mkhize said.

READ ALSO | SA renewables firm Renergen to start production of ultra-cold Covid-19 vaccine storage

The Chinese vaccines Sinopharm and Sinovac, as well as the Russian Sputnik V vaccine are all stored at fridge temperature.

On Sunday, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the country's move to Covid-19 lockdown Alert Level 1.

Under Level 1, indoor gatherings are limited to 100 people and 250 for events held outdoors, while the curfew is now between 00:00 and 04:00.

Night vigils and other gatherings before or after funerals are still not permitted and nightclubs remain closed.

South Africans may also purchase alcohol all week and political parties can resume their activities.

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