Out of the cold31 March 2021

As this is being written in February, the UK has vaccinated more than 15 million people. One factor that should not be underestimated in that successful roll-out is the cold chain. Many of the vaccinations given so far have been the Belgian-bottled Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Like many other medical products (and other vaccines), it spoils at ambient temperatures, and so must be refrigerated until point of use.

Every day transport firms use refrigerated road trailers and ISO containers to maintain the ‘cold chain’ for food and medical products across the UK and Europe.

Unlike others, that vaccine needs to be kept in a deep freeze: -70°C. Frozen vaccine packs have been transported using dry ice (-78.5°C sublimation point). Thus protected, vaccine boxes are sent to a central hub, and then distributed to NHS sites around the UK where their temperatures continue to be monitored.

But like any equipment, refrigeration units don’t just work; they must be managed and cared for by competent technicians. That means regular inspection and servicing. The vapour-compression cycle that creates the cold requires a compressor to pump the refrigerant. That takes power, either from a diesel engine or mains electricity. Diesel engines, too, need to be fed with fuel, and regular maintenance including changing of fluids and filters.

And the reliable provision of electricity to point of demand is an entire industry within itself, which relies on lots more links within the transmission and distribution grid, including baseload and intermittent power plants and grid interconnectors.

Many people have praised the quick response of doctors and nurses in this crisis, and rightly so. But it should be pointed out that delivery of the Pfizer vaccine in particular requires more than just medicine; it requires contributions from multiple types of plant, and the technicians and engineers that service it, to reach the point of need.

Bruce McGill, CEO, Society of Operations Engineers

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