The world on Monday cheered as the Pfizer and BioNTech announced its vaccine was more than 90% effective based on initial clinical trials results.
But many Asian countries aren’t betting on the experimental shot to solve their COVID-19 crisis any time soon given the tropical heat, and a dearth of ultra-cold freezers.
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 (-94 F) 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 Organization estimates about 70% of people must be inoculated to end the pandemic, and Asia alone is home to more than 4.6 billion – or three-fifths of the global population.
Some Asian countries are prioritising containing the novel coronavirus rather than looking to stockpile vaccines, while others are looking for alternatives to the messenger RNA technology used by Pfizer that requires such ultra-cold storage.
“On the cold chain requirement of -70 degrees, that is a hefty requirement. We do not have such facility,” Philippines’ Health Secretary Francisco Duque told Reuters.
“We will have to wait and see for now,” he added. “The technology Pfizer is using is new technology. We don’t have experience with that, so risks can be high.”
Pfizer told Reuters that it had developed detailed logistical plans and tools to support vaccine transport, storage and continuous temperature monitoring.
“We have also developed packaging and storage innovations to be fit for purpose for the range of locations where we believe vaccinations will take place,” it said.