The biggest challenge for COVID-19 vaccines is the cold supply chain
The world breathed a collective sigh of relief upon news that coronavirus vaccines, passing through testing stages, show high levels of efficacy. The news is marred however by the extremely low temperatures that some coronavirus vaccines require, such as -20°C and -70°C. The lack of continuous cold chain facilities for medical supplies in many parts of the world put regular vaccines and medicine out of reach for millions of people: the need for ultracold puts it out of reach for billions.
A white paper from DHL sets out the complexity of the distribution process and the large challenges facing successful delivery even in countries where strict temperature can be maintained. Any break in the cold chain – from manufacturing to injection – may render the vaccine dose ineffective; the paper estimates that at least two thirds of the global population is unlikely to have easy access to any coronavirus jab that requires maintainance at super cold temperatures.
The need for the extreme cold temperatures for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines is because of the novel technology used in these vaccines: strands of messenger RNA (mRNA), held within lipid particles which degrades at room temperature, and which needs to be frozen for transportation, then thawed for use. However, medical freezers that go down to -70°C are rare even in US and European hospitals.
The vaccines from Oxford/AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson, also need to be kept cool, but at normal refrigeration levels.
Action is being taken to fix this issue. Pfizer for example is putting in place the logistics to fly cargoes of vaccine containing vials, in insulated boxes with thermal sensors on dry ice which can maintain the required temperature of -70°C for 10 days. Where ultracold freezers do not exist (which is many places as they cost ~$15,000 each) the thermal box can keep temperatures down by refilling the dry ice every 5 days. Once opened the vaccine can be refrigerated for some days: tests are ongoing to determine how long this can be.
It is likely that the biggest complications in distribution will come at the last mile or final point of delivery rather than the first stages of distribution. This is because of the absence of trained staff, lack of equipment (from freezers to the manufacture of dry ice), and unreliable electricity supplies in many places of the world, especially the Global South. Geopolitical barriers from difficult terrain, poor roads, war, and tension already hamper the efforts of routine immunization services provided by outreach organisations operating in rural locations.
It is possible to deliver such vaccines – great strides forward were made during the Ebola epidemic, with technology and cold chain distribution being rapidly deployed to reach those in need, as the vaccine against that virus also requires ultracold storage. However, the sale and urgency of the coronavirus pandemic makes it a completely different situation.
The volume and speed that a global Covid-19 vaccination programme will require is a great opportunity to build upon previous successes and implement an entirely new fast-track approach to build up the medical, engineering and planning skills needed to roll out an effective and equitable vaccination programme, based on a joined-up and sustainable cold chain. A positive legacy could come from this terrible pandemic if we can put sustainable and reliable measures in place to reach people for the longer term, from renewable energy micro-grids to boost electricity reliability, to the use of drones for deliveries.
Summer heatwaves claimed more than 2,500 lives across England
In our August newsletter, we reported how the 2020 summer heatwaves were causing significant health impacts in England. A newly released Government estimate shows that, after having accounted for coronavirus, the heatwaves caused a record 2,556 excess deaths, of which 88% were among people aged 65 and over.
This is the highest number of deaths since the since the introduction of the Heatwave Plan for England, and higher than the 2003 pan-European heatwave, an event that killed over 35,000 people across the continent, and is widely considered to have been the first of many similar events.
It is thought that the risk and impact of COVID-19 may have amplified the number of deaths from the heatwave, by either enhancing the discomfort and mortality, or reducing people’s ability or desire to ask for help.
Unless urgent action is taken to address the climate emergency, and implement effective sustainable cooling measures, the number of excess deaths due to heatwaves is likely to increase year on year. Increasingly frequent and severe heatwaves are among the deadliest impacts of climate change and affect everyone, but particularly elderly people and other vulnerable groups.
Above: Excess mortality in the 65+ years group during summer 2020, with the three heatwave periods identified in grey columns: 23 to 27 June, 30 July to 1 August and 5 to 15 August.
Personal Cooling for Older Buildings
A guest piece by James Trevelyan
By 2050, only a small minority of the world’s people will live and work in purpose-designed sustainable buildings requiring minimal energy for comfort. There are a handful of demonstrators today and Passivhaus is become a well-recognised standard. Yet despite the sustainability benefits of such standards, most new buildings across this planet still have traditional designs, and the vast majority of the buildings in 2050 will be those currently in existence.
Greenhouse gas emissions associated with accelerating use of space air conditioning is now a well-recognised climate warming threat. Ongoing research and development, and innovation support such as the Global Cooling Prize will help to yield new or more efficient approaches. However, new technologies can take decades to become widely adopted, and so we need to find ways to use today’s technologies for climate-friendly cooling in existing buildings.
Ever increasing temperatures during the day and night cause problems for many. Hundreds of millions living in high-rise concrete apartments, in urban heat islands, suffer fitful sleep and poor health for months through extreme heat and steamy nights. Or if there is air conditioning, many struggle to pay energy bills generated from their use. Personal cooling solutions are therefore attractive pathways to low-emission and low-cost cooling. While traditional space air conditioning uses most of the energy to cool the building structure, personal cooling solutions create a localised microclimate just for people, requiring far less energy, maintenance, and capital investment.
Start-ups like Close Comfort and Tupik have pioneered commercial markets in South and South East Asia, with power requirements as low as 100 Watts per person in steamy tropical heat. Evening Breeze has offered luxury solutions in Europe. In Australia Task Air pioneered personal office cooling and Close Comfort has captured a significant home and small office market.
The benefit of personal cooling is the absence of costly installation or building modification work that would be beyond many people. They also work well in existing buildings that are not designed for energy efficiency and which may be difficult to insulate or seal drafts. Self-contained personal cooling units use very small amounts of refrigerant significantly reducing the climate threat from inadvertent refrigerant release.
The photo shows an example of personal cooling: a specially designed bed tent which is coupled with the air conditioner unit. The unit creates a stratified layer of cool air over the bed providing up to 12 degrees of apparent cooling for two adults. The tent also provides effective chemical-free insect protection. Users reported electricity bill reductions up to 95% at the height of summer, as only a small amount of air is chilled.
Personal air conditioning can play a key role in climate-friendly cooling comfort, now and the future.
James Trevelyan is Emeritus Professor in Engineering at The University of Western Australia and Director and CEO of Close Comfort.
Cooling from seawater…
…for air conditioning
Project EUROSWAC is a multi-partner project between the UK and France focused on the English Channel’s seawater. It has received €20.5m funding to design a cost-efficient and environmentally-friendly prototype solution using the renewable energy resource of sea water for air conditioning (SWAC). Developing an effective SWAC system will hopefully, in time, replace the existing conventional cooling system of the Eurotunnel, and provide cooling services for facilities that need it, located close to the shore, such as data centres, hospitals, and warehouses. SWAC has been successfully deployed in tropical areas and in the Mediterranean sea; this is the first use of the technology in the temperate climate of northern Europe.
Above: How a SWAC system differs from a traditional AC system
Driving Project EUROSWAC is the desire to make cooling more efficient and sustainable, and reduce the associated pollution associated with its use, from fossil fuels derived electricity and F gases.
The project will develop a cost-efficient and environmentally-friendly solution using seawater as the refrigerant. It will exploit the temperature difference between cold ocean water and external air temperature. An aim is to have 35 SWAC systems by 2030 which can reduce indirect emissions caused by air conditioning by up to 30%.
…for data centres
Using seawater, rather than F-gases or freshwater for cooling, has multiple environmental benefits and applications. One is that data centres can be located on the seabed, reducing the logistic difficulties and time needed to build infrastructure, and avoiding the high costs of siting on land.
In September 2020, Microsoft declared its 2-year trial of using underwater cooling for sealed data centre was a great success. Microsoft’s Project Natick has explored the feasibility of subsea datacentres powered by offshore renewable energy and has deployed a full-scale data centre module in the North Sea, offshore from the Orkney Islands, 100% powered by renewable energy and cooled by seawater.
In 2018 a pod containing a 12-rack, 864-server data centre was deposited beneath the water at the European Marine Energy Centre, where tidal currents peak at 9mph and storm waves reach 60 feet or more. The rate of server failure was one-eighth what may be expect from the same servers in a traditional, human-serviced data centre over the same period. This may be because of the pod atmosphere which was pressurised with inert nitrogen before being sealed, plus the avoidance of humidity or jostling from human technicians.
Online illegal F-gas sales to be tracked
Innovate UK has funded the Scottish company Vistalworks to tackle the global problem of the black market in HFC refrigerants. Vistalworks has developed software that warns online shoppers of potential high-risk purchases reducing the risk of fraud and illicit trade, and exposure to dangerous goods. This award follows one from UKRI to develop software to detect and prevent the supply of illicit and falsified medical products and PPE on mainstream online marketplaces and e-commerce websites.
This funding will enable the company to develop tech solutions to detect online sellers of illicit F-gas, provide data to enforcement agencies across Europe, and provide evidence to support successful prosecutions. It will hopefully reduce climate-related emissions and pollution caused by illegal HFCs by up to 840,000 tonnes of CO2 a year and be in place for COP26 in November 2021.
How Efficient, Climate-friendly Cooling Can Support the Power Sector’s Transition to Zero Emission
A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) examines how the growth in cooling demand will impact the power sector’s ability to provide access to reliable, secure, and affordable electricity and a achieve net zero goals.
The EIU undertook an extensive modelling exercise to identity the financial and environmental costs of energy supply if the electricity demand from space cooling is not reduced, how efficiency can reduce these costs and other potential solutions.
Key findings include:
- Power demand for cooling is expected to grow by 6.1% every year to 2030. Expanding capacity to meet this demand will cost US$4.6trn over the next ten years and contribute 10.1 GtCO2 emissions.
- More than half of this cost arises from meeting demand at peak hours.
- Even with renewable energy, the financial and environmental costs will still be high.
- More efficient cooling can substantially reduce these costs. Installing more efficient air conditioning equipment could save $0.9trn and 2.0 GtCO2 emissions by 2030; reducing the need for air conditioning would increase the savings to $3.5trn and 7.6 GtCO2 by 2030.
- Without the implementation of sustainable cooling solutions, countries aiming to meet net zero emissions in 2050 are likely to miss those targets by up to eight years.
The report concludes that efficient and sustainable cooling can expedite the transition to net zero at a lower cost, as well as providing benefits for all stakeholders, including governments, consumers, and the power sector itself, given the right incentives. Countries aiming to reach net zero emissions by 2050 are likely to miss those targets by up to eight years if they do not implement sustainable cooling solutions.
More ratifications of the Kigali Amendment
The Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol is an international agreement to gradually reduce the consumption and production of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). The amendment was agreed upon at the twenty-eighth Meeting of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol held on October 15, 2016, in Kigali. Countries that ratify the Kigali Amendment have committed to cut the production and consumption of HFCs by more than 80% over the next 30 years.
There are now 111 countries which have ratified the Amendment, with 7 more since we last looked: Nicaragua (30/9/20); Russian Federation (3/10/20), Bolivia (9/10/20), San Marino 20/10/20), Malaysia 21/10/20, Cape Verde 28/10/20), and Angola (16/11/20). Woop!
Health Effects of Climate Change Mitigation Actions
A multi-authored paper have been published proposing Guidelines for Modelling and Reporting the Health Effects of Climate Change Mitigation Actions.
Documenting the health benefits of climate change mitigation actions can help drive more ambitious and health-protective plans. In addition, documenting adverse health effects can help us to avoid them in the future. Better knowledge and harmonising the health effects of mitigation will help policy makers prioritize investments based not only on mitigation potential but also on expected health benefits.
Above: Some sector-specific examples of the multiple mechanisms and pathways through which climate change mitigation policies can affect human health
This is because although climate change mitigation is an urgent priority, policy implementation has been limited, often due to associated short-term financial costs. Yet, cost assessments rarely account for ancillary or concomitant impacts and externalities. Such co-benefits and co-harms are extremely important and should be factored into the cost: benefit assessment process. Many mitigation measures have significant health benefits, with broader benefits accruing in the longer term. It is very likely they will enhance the economic case for pursuing aggressive mitigation action if they were factored into economic valuations and decision making.
For this study, an expert panel was convened and generated a large checklist of recommendations and guidelines regarding stakeholder engagement: modelling of health effects from mitigation, including model structure, scope and scale, demographics, time horizons, counterfactuals, health response functions, and metrics; parameterization and reporting; approaches to uncertainty and sensitivity analysis; accounting for policy uptake; and discounting.