A seven-point plan to tackle the world's biggest cooling challenge

views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“The Covid-19 logistics response could be the biggest, single refrigeration challenge the world has ever faced.”


The COVID-19 logistics response could be the biggest, single refrigeration challenge the world has ever faced.  Cold-chains are energy intensive and rely on refrigerants, often with high Global Warming Potential (GWP). Given most of the technologies deployed in 2021 will still be in operation into the next decade, this rapid expansion must as far as possible not be based on technologies that are environmentally harmful. But we can go further. Sustainable cold chains that use novel technologies can unlock modal shifts and allow us to think about opportunities in broader temperature opportunities. This opens the door to developing a lasting COVID-19 cold chain legacy that is both resilient and sustainable.

At a minimum, more financing focused on solar-powered refrigerators and freezers can support health facilities in developing countries that suffer from a lack of reliable electricity and not rely on diesel systems or high GWP refrigerants. However, it is worth noting that the World Health Organisation (WHO) still lists equipment using R404A, which has a GWP of 3922, the highest of all the commonly used refrigerants and has been banned in Europe with only recovered or reclaimed R4040A able to be used until 2030.

  • Intervention 1 - Fridges purchased today will remain in field for all of this decade. We don’t just need energy consumption and refrigerants listed in equipment specifications, but up-to-date sustainability goals embedded into the process for procuring equipment.

Drones are already proving their value for modal shift and rapid delivery of pharmaceutical products in rural locations. Combined with new mobile rechargeable micro-chillers, they could offer new integrated logistics solutions. At the same time, off-grid and pop-up mobile cold rooms could enable more cost-efficient campaign approaches; critically with the potential to be repurposed once the substantial but temporary need for covid-19 immunisation is addressed. Globally we have less than 15% of the cold-chain capacity actually required today, let alone to meet future demand.

  • Intervention 2 - We need to better explore the opportunity for ‘Cooling as a Service’ to enable optimised asset utilisation to address a multitude of cooling needs given the long lifespan of the equipment versus the potential timeline for vaccine needs.

Given the likely timeline to mass deployment, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity presented by an urgent demand for new cold chains to go further and leapfrog to new strategies that make progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals. At the systems level, multi-sectoral synergies could be exploited by creating cold-chains that would provide integrated services, for example, across food, agriculture as well as health. This might increase flexibility and operational efficiency of cold-chains, especially in agriculture-dominated developing countries where substantial amount of food flows from rural to urban communities, and the temperatures-sensitive medical products, such as vaccines, flow from urban to rural.

  • Intervention 3 – Explore the opportunity of ‘Community Cooling Hubs’ supported by appropriate technology and business models to sustainably provide access to a portfolio of refrigeration dependent services to rural (and urban) communities.
  • Intervention 4 – Regardless of the strategy, large volumes of new equipment will be deployed.  Any lack of qualified in-field refrigeration technicians will lead to long response times to equipment malfunctions and broken cold-chains.

Data management and monitoring technologies will play a vital role ensuring the timely delivery of quality COVID-19 vaccines to their intended recipients;  the chain of custody and vaccine quality from the point of manufacture through to the point of delivery; people receive the vital second dose, and to avoid double vaccination. It is also key to detect cold-chain equipment malfunction as well as enable predictive maintenance. It can identify and manage risks in real time, such as power outages, weather conditions, transport delays and disruptions. It will help protect against counterfeit vaccines, ensure security and prevent theft as well as provide records for auditing waste management. And with specialist transport containers required for the ultra-cold vaccines, tracking to ensure their fast return may determine the speed at which the supply chain can function.

  • Intervention 5 – Ensure we invest in joined-up and embedded data capture and management alongside deploying hardware. Usage and performance data is critical in developing the capacity to run self-organising models which in turn enable resilient self-healing systems.
  • Intervention 6 – Alongside vaccines, disposable syringes, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other vaccination supplies will need to be shipped out to every health centre and rural outreach point. As we plan the capacity to move everything out, we must be ready to deliver the sustainable and safe waste management and disposal recycling.

Where do we start?

In rushing to deploy hardware, an underestimation of the scale of the cooling demand, the system complexities and its impact on energy consumption risks contributing to a lack of ambition in policies, infrastructures and technology developments as well as capacity building. It could ultimately have far-reaching social, economic and environmental consequences.

Importantly a focus on per capita equipment penetration rates pre-supposes a top- down technical solution to the cooling needs. This approach ignores the possibility of demand mitigation through the redesign of systems, the aggregation of demand, modal shifts, the use of waste or currently untapped resources, as well as support for existing cooling practices and behaviours. Understanding the challenges from a whole-system perspective is essential for identifying gaps and seizing the opportunities to align renewable energy and energy-efficient solutions with mass vaccination of COVID-19 and future needs of cold-chains.

The biggest hurdle in both designing the current system and what COVID-19 vaccination cold chain configuration secures the greatest legacy is that the systems we need to investigate – cold-chains for COVID-19 mass immunisation as oposed to routine immunisation - don’t exist yet. We need to understand the system for the impacts of new levels of volume and velocity.

A modelling approach - essentially creating a virtual world which combines both existing capacity, with demand profiles, infrastructure, climate and new technology choices - will therefore be the most efficient and fastest route to a robust solution. Modelling allows us to develop parallel universes in which we can experiment at speeds not achievable in the real world. It can rapidly test thousands of scenarios, self-organising to define the optimum - and most enegry efficiency and sustainable - investment strategies.

Looking forward, along with meeting the needs for Covid-19 immunisation today, the models can be exercised to quantify what value can be developed in each country by considerating how a range of COVID-19 vaccine distribution solutions could be redeployed in other cold chain applications.

  • Intervention 7 – where it all starts. Measure thousands of times in a matter of days before deploying thousands of pieces of equiment with multi-year life. Using virtual systems populated with intelligent, decision making capability and driven by clear objectives and high powered computing environments will allow us to identify robust solutions for more scenarios.

This is important for all of us. In the short term, it will be the poor who will face the most significant challenges in accessing a vaccine for COVID-19 and cooling will become a serious issue of equity underpinning access to vaccines. As governments and NGOs develop distribution plans, cold chains must both guarantee the health response and draw on the most sustainable solutions to build long-term resilience. These choices and the costs and environmental impacts will impact all of us for decades to come. We need to get them deployed quickly but we also need to ensure they are right. An intelligent approach to developing smart cold chains for vaccine distribution capability that can be transferred to other supply chains presents the greatest economic opportunity to developing a lasting COVID-19 cold chain legacy that is both resilient and sustainable.

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