Strengthening and Extending the Vaccine Cold Chain
Few scientific or medical breakthroughs have affected humanity as significantly as vaccines. From measles to polio, vaccines have made some of the world’s deadliest diseases an afterthought for many parts of the world. Fundamental research continues to improve existing vaccines and develop new ones to tackle diseases like malaria. Sadly, though, the life-changing power of vaccines isn’t felt equally throughout the world. As a result, the World Health Organization estimates that more than one million children under age five die each year from vaccine-preventable diseases. That’s one child every 20 seconds.
Vaccine research alone simply isn’t enough, and the power vaccines have to improve and save lives means little if they don’t find their way to the areas that need them most. Although myriad factors can hinder vaccination coverage, rates remain lowest in rural areas of developing countries that lack the infrastructure and electricity to store the necessary stock of vaccines. Access to these areas is often limited at best, which prevents regular vaccine deliveries. Once delivered, unreliable electricity or fuel supplies mean traditional refrigerators can’t maintain the temperatures needed to prevent vaccines from spoiling. This breakdown in the refrigerated supply chain results in unnecessary disease, death, and suffering.
To address this gap, inventors have explored alternative energy such as propane and solar to power refrigerators in areas without reliable electricity. This equipment has helped extend the vaccine cold chain, but still requires specialized technology, maintenance, infrastructure, and operating costs that limit their effectiveness in developing countries. Alternative distribution strategies have also helped, but these typically rely on extensive networks of individual couriers with a limited stock of vaccines that must be used or returned that same day. A better solution is needed to provide reliable, ongoing vaccination services in areas without reliable power or modern infrastructure.
Intellectual Ventures’ (IV) Global Good program is looking for a better way to store and transport vaccines without any external power. Super insulation techniques have existed for decades to help store cryogenic fluids and protect spacecraft from the high and low temperatures of outer space. Using similar principles, IV developed an insulated container optimized for vaccine storage that can maintain the necessary temperature for more than a month using only ice. This means the device can be loaded with a month’s supply of vaccines and transported to remote areas without worrying about power sources or infrastructure.
After years of research and development at IV Lab, the latest version of this device is currently being tested in Africa. Earlier prototypes held the necessary temperatures for more than 90 days, but the latest devices have been redesigned and optimized specifically for the use case they’ll face in the field. Vaccines can be retrieved as needed without jeopardizing the remaining vials and the insulated container can be easily recharged for continued use. The device also includes built-in tracking and monitoring that transmits temperature and location information via SMS.
This super-insulation approach is just one piece of the vaccine cold chain puzzle. Ultimate success will require a multi-faceted approach with contributions from countless inventors. For example, other organizations are working on novel tracking devices that monitor each individual vaccine vial. As vaccines themselves continue to improve in effectiveness and affordability, the lives of millions of children could depend on inventors’ ability to strengthen and extend the cold chain over the last mile. How will you help?