Covid-19 Vaccines And The Looming Sustainability Issue

by | Aug 18, 2021 | NEWS, WORLD | 0 comments

Through Operation Warp Speed by the United States, US$18 billion was set aside for the development of the vaccines in the fight against the Covid-19 virus. It was a success and seen as a game-changer with phase 3 clinical trials proving a 50% to 95% efficacy. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention validated and approved such vaccines from Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna.

With such a monumental task for 7.8 billion people to be vaccinated, a matter of concern was raised. How environmentally friendly will the whole process from the manufacturing of the vaccines to injecting the people be? The 3 pharmaceutical companies rely on cold chain logistics to move the vaccines.

A cold chain process involves a seamless logistic service handling refrigerated products, their storage and subsequent distribution activities. The storage temperatures of the vaccine are vital to be maintained low for the efficacy to remain. The required storage temperature for Pfizer is at minus 70°C, AstraZeneca from 2°C to 8°C and Moderna at minus 20°C.

These pharmaceutical companies espoused the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) gases to keep the optimum storage temperatures for the vaccines. Data from the European Union showed that HFC is a threat to the environment because it contributes 23,000 times more to global warming than carbon dioxide. With an increase of HFC, the ozone layer slowly depletes and harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun increasingly heats the earth. Professor Toby Peters from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, an inventor and architect of liquid air energy storage and the cold economy said that it would undo the efforts of the European Union’s (EU) Green Deal of achieving climate neutrality by 2050. He added, “It’s all going to add to emissions at a time where we’re trying to get to net-zero.”

The alternative to using refrigerator boxes is dry ice. As stated by the World Health Organization (WHO), it is recommended that packaging with phase-changing properties be used. Phase-change materials (PCM) can change their state of matter from that of being in a solid state to that of a gaseous one. Such efforts are in alignment with the agenda of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the number twelve of the said goals being, “Ensure Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns”.

Another sustainability issue is that the Covid-19 vaccine produces considerable wastes.  The WHO estimated that 25% of vaccines are lost via transportation due to breakages in the cold chain process. The main items of this waste are vials, syringes, needles, expired vaccines and single-use plastic packaging. Roel Gevaers, economics and logistics professor at the University of Antwerp, Belgium said there is a significant chance that vaccines will be lost when more vaccination centres open. “You need to find the balance between not losing a thousand injections and taking into account the environmental impact and, that’s a complicated tradeoff.”

Wastes in the health industry have already been on a high even before the pandemic. In Hubei, China medical wastes hit a staggering 370% increase in the month of March in 2020, with plastic contributing to the bulk of it. There is an argument that the wastes are not significant as economies have decelerated and saw a reduction in plastic usage. Even so, these pollutions stand in the way of the United Nation’s 17 sustainability goals.