In his most recent address to the nation, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the International Solar Alliance (ISA) India’s “gift to the world” in the fight against climate change. ISA, an inter-governmental organization, was jointly launched by India and France in 2015 on the side-lines of the COP21 climate conference. The idea was to harness clean and low-cost solar power in solar-rich countries to make them energy secure and self-reliant. Though it is a bit early to gauge the ISA’s achievements as an enabler of low-cost solar energy, it can certainly play a vital role in the development of sustainable cold supply chains for potential COVID-19 vaccines.
Even with the fastest testing and trials, a vaccine against COVID-19 will only be available after some time. These next 12-18 months — in the most optimistic projections — are critical for countries to prepare themselves for an extensive immunization program. Unfortunately, the existing vaccine cold supply chain network in most countries is insufficient to handle a mass immunization program to control a pandemic such as COVID-19. Many developing countries across the world lack infrastructural capabilities – they either entirely lack cold chains, or own unreliable and poor-performing vaccine refrigerators. Broken cold chain networks are responsible for more than 1 million deaths globally from vaccine-preventable diseases every year. 30 percent of those deaths are among children under the age of five.
Handling vaccines is particularly difficult. Typically, vaccines need to be transported and stored at low temperatures between 2-8 degrees C in order to protect their potency. In hotter temperatures, this task becomes even harder. Countries without a reliable and uninterrupted power supply are forced to use kerosene powered “absorption refrigerators” to keep vaccines cool. Apart from being highly inefficient, kerosene fuel is polluting, expensive, and often exposes vaccines to freezing temperatures. Burning kerosene primarily causes PM2.5 emissions of black carbon, a short-lived climate pollutant, and a potent greenhouse gas. With strong evidence that higher air pollution (PM2.5) causes higher number of deaths in COVID-19 patients, there is merit in replacing absorption refrigerators with solar powered refrigeration.
The International Solar Alliance has the potential to shape the global development of a solar powered vaccine logistics network to replace the kerosene-based absorption refrigerators. Solar direct drive (SDD) refrigeration provides a cost effective and clean alternative to the kerosene-based absorption refrigerators. Most members of ISA are in tropical and sub-tropical countries that experience high ambient temperatures. Thus, the issue of temperature-controlled vaccine delivery mechanism becomes imperative. In Tanzania, a ratified member of ISA, for instance, only 28 percent of the total immunization health centers have access to the grid, while 70 percent of the health centers rely on absorption refrigeration, exposing vaccines to freezing temperatures and contributing to localized air pollution. On the other hand, in Colombia’s remote northern mountains, health centers cannot afford to run the expensive kerosene based absorption refrigerators. The ones that can, operate these refrigerators once a week every month, implying that immunization is unavailable for three out of four weeks. In Cameroon, 38 percent health centers lack refrigeration entirely, while 14 percent are equipped with broken refrigerators. To counter a contagious pandemic like COVID-19, it is clear that the existing vaccine logistics network will have to be upgraded, including connectivity to remote last mile destinations. This upgrade in existing vaccine logistics should be a sustainable one that ensures a concerted effort on combining global health and climate concerns.
With a mandate to promote solar energy, ISA could become the new age platform for a renewed multilateral effort. Such an effort will not only establish ISA as a truly global organization but will further cement India’s relations overseas. Most of ISA’s membership is African, with the continent contributing 34 ratified members. India is attempting to establish itself as a responsible global leader, spreading its medicine diplomacy far and wide in Africa. It should use ISA to push for the development of low-cost sustainable cooling infrastructure. A sustainable, last-mile vaccine delivery mechanism in the continent will not only help in faster recovery from COVID-19, but will establish India as a long-term development partner in the region.
Zerin Osho holds a Master’s Degree in International Climate Policy from the Fletcher School and is currently on assignment at the International Solar Alliance. Views expressed are personal.