The global cold chain’s Herculean efforts to support the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines will likely lead to investment and expansion of cold storage across the planet that could save lives long after the coronavirus crisis ends. COVID-19 vaccines require unprecedented cold storage on a massive scale never seen before.
While the normal seasonal flu vaccine requires storage of approximately 39 degrees, the Moderna and AstraZeneca vaccines need to be shipped and stored long-term at minus-4 degrees and the Pfizer vaccine requires an ultra-cold minus-94 degrees.
Cold Chain to Support Billions of Vaccinations
The global cold chain’s mobilization effort will be needed to vaccinate as many as five billion people around the world, some requiring two doses. Compare that to the annual infant vaccine programs that reach 116 million worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.
“The vaccination against COVID-19 is an inflection point that will determine how cold chains are handled on a global scale for the next two decades,” said Ligia Noronha, Director of the Economy Division at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The United Nations Environment Programme in a December article wrote that the “vaccine rollout is an opportunity to create a new, sustainable cold chain that will be of use well beyond the current crisis.”
Benjamin Hickman, who is coordinating the Cool Coalition’s work on cold chains, also in the UN article, agrees: “If we establish cold chains for COVID immunization efforts that can later be used for agricultural purposes the legacy impact would be much greater. It would be hugely beneficial for the countries, a double investment of sorts.”
Pandemic Heats Up Demand for Cold Storage
Even before the coronavirus crisis the global cold chain was already in expansion mode with Grand View Research in 2019 estimating that the global cold chain market size would reach $447.5 billion by 2025.
The global cold chain consists of coordinated critical infrastructure that provides temperature-controlled environments to store, manage and transport medicine, food, and other products. When the COVID-19 pandemic started cold storage demand increased overnight as consumers shifted away from dining out to e-grocery solutions.
“At Colliers, we like to say the e-grocery industry was accelerated by five to seven years in a five- to seven-month period due to the coronavirus,” said the Colliers’ International’s Food Advisory Services Group in an interview with Connect Atlanta. “Consumers who were dabbling in e-grocery before the pandemic have fully adopted the practice now, while many consumers who never would have adopted e-grocery will use the method post-pandemic.”
The grocery supply chain has been forced to find new cold storage sources for warehousing and distribution to meet this e-grocery surge.
Colliers says “the vacancy rate of cold storage buildings across the U.S. is less than 2 percent, which translates to virtually no supply of usable, modern space for prospective food users. Pre-pandemic, there was already minimal supply of existing cold space available on the market. Now, there is almost no remaining supply, as a result of a run on available product.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, investment firms have been taking an interest in cold chain opportunities since the pandemic started.
Creating a Cold Chain Lasting Legacy
Developing countries around the world are banking on cold chain investments in their regions to help, not only with the COVID-19 vaccines, but to help with food security and other healthcare issues.
The United Nations says, “Universal vaccine access is a challenge in developing economies, due to inadequate refrigerated cold chain networks, especially in rural communities, which have the highest poverty levels. This impacts not just vaccine access, but also food security and livelihoods. Farmers lose anywhere between 30-50 percent of food produced for human consumption due to poor post-harvest practices and lack of cold storage.”
UNEP is partnering with the governments of Rwanda and the United Kingdom, and a consortium of universities on a new Africa Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold Chain with a focus on developing cutting-edge cold chain solutions.