Abu Dhabi: Mired in the global COVID-19 outbreak, populations across the world have been looking to vaccines as a means to end the pandemic. But when the jabs eventually came onto the market in late 2020, another global concern came to the fore: vaccine access.
The UAE has been leading the way in efforts to protect its population from the coronavirus, with mass test and trace strategies introduced very early on, and a series of Phase III tests launched for COVID-19 vaccines.
Now, as other nations work to vaccinate their populations, the UAE is once again taking another pioneering step: it has spearheaded a logistical solution that allows vaccine access to a range of communities.
From providing COVID-19 vaccine storage and delivery, to even administering the shots, the Hope Consortium, as it has been called, offers end-to-end vaccine services for those even in remote areas across Africa, South Asia and the Middle East. Led by the emirate’s health regulator, the Department of Health — Abu Dhabi (DoH), the Consortium has brought together public and private sector entities to fight COVID-19 vaccine access inequity and make inroads towards ending the pandemic.
A large facility in Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa Industrial Area (KIZAD) has been set up as the hub and storage centre for the Consortium’s operations. In an exclusive tour, Gulf News was shown the extensive range of features that facilitate vaccine distribution, storage and even administration.
Robert Sutton, Head of Logistics Cluster at Abu Dhabi Ports, said the Hope Consortium has thus far handled over 27 million COVID-19 vaccine vials across 31 different countries around the world. He also noted that the organisation is working hard with its world-class partners to increase its cold chain’s delivery capacity to 18 billion vaccine doses per year.
“It is an aspirational target, but we believe it can be achieved as long as enough COVID-19 vaccine doses are manufactured. Right now, there are not yet enough doses being produced, but we expect this to change quickly over the next few months,” Sutton said.
While the Consortium’s services are provided commercially, the enterprise still maintains that its overarching goal is to combat the pandemic that has crippled economies around the world.
What is the Hope Consortium?
It is a public-private partnership that is led by the DoH. It counts national carrier Etihad Airways’ cargo division, Etihad Cargo, among its key players, along with the emirate’s port regulator and operator, Abu Dhabi Ports.
Abu Dhabi-based firm Rafed, offers vaccine, equipment, and personnel procurement support, whereas digital solutions provider, Maqta Gateway, secures delivery and tracking of vaccine doses. Swiss container solutions provider, SkyCell, aids with access to specialised containers when required.
The purpose-built 19,000 square-metre facility can store a whopping 120 million vaccine vials at a time, which is known as its static storage. This includes 11.4 million doses at temperatures as low as -80 degrees Celsius. The rest can be stored at temperatures ranging from -30 degrees Celsius to 26 degrees Celsius.
When a shipment of vaccines is brought to the facility, the transport vehicle is received at one of 16 loading docks. An air curtain is inflated and wrapped around the vehicle to protect the cargo from dust and sand as it is unloaded. The curtains are also used when loading a shipment for transport.
A central reception and operations area stands ready to receive vaccines. It is also here that vaccine shipments are prepared before transport. A warehouse management system keeps track of all vaccine doses brought to the facility, and all that are checked out.
When a shipment is brought in, its temperature is checked and details like batch number and manufacturer are recorded. It is then assigned a storage space in the facility.
To achieve sub-zero temperatures, which are a requirement to safely store mRNA-based vaccines like Pfizer, the facility features one of the region’s largest “freezer farms,” which is located off the main area. The locked doors of the freezers can only be opened by a qualified pharmacist, and one of three pharmacists is present on-site round-the-clock to facilitate operations, which must be carried out at widely different times to keep up with flight times and requests from other time zones.
All orders are processed by the warehouse team under pharmacist supervision. The pharmacists also carry out quality checks randomly to ensure vaccine quality and safety.
Behind a door is a cooled corridor, leading off to chambers maintained at the refrigeration temperature required for safe vaccine storage. The mercury can dip as low as -30 degrees Celsius in these eight chambers, each of which can store 20 million vaccine vials.
Sutton explained that this is done by passing a mixture of gases that act as refrigerants. The gases are pressurised by five main compressors at the facility. “The plant is ammonia-based, and this concentrated ammonia is used to remove heat from the parts of the facility that need to be kept cold,” he said. Many personnel working in the cooled chambers in fact don thermal coats to protect themselves from the chill.
The chambers are fitted with shelving from floor to ceiling. Each shelving area is tagged, and Sutton said the tag is recorded on the warehouse management system during storage so that the correct batch of vaccines can be found when required. A very narrow aisle machine is used to shelve vaccine products and retrieve them in each chamber.
During the Gulf News visit, the facility was operating at only 10 per cent capacity, as very few COVID-19 vaccine doses are being stored at the moment. This is because there is high uptake of most manufactured vaccine doses while countries are working to vaccinate their populations.
“The tipping point will come when vaccine production exceeds demand, and this is when a number of countries that have limitations on vaccine storage would need to make use of the services we provide,” Sutton said. Abu Dhabi, which is within 10 hours’ reach by plane of 3.6 billion people, is ideally suited to provide cold chain services.
While some vaccine manufacturers provide their own shipping containers, some vaccines may need to be transported in refrigerated containers until the last mile. The SkyCell containers can help these doses remain at cold and ultra-cold temperatures for up to a week.
A final dry storage area is used to store medical equipment and personal protective equipment for vaccine delivery, including syringes, face masks, gowns and other medical grade equipment. At present, this area is used to store and dispense inventory for Abu Dhabi’s public health provider, the Abu Dhabi Health Services Company (Seha), which is taking the lead in COVID-19 vaccine delivery in the UAE.
Needless to say, all areas of the vaccine facility are monitored by closed-circuit cameras.
Till date, 65 per cent of the vaccine doses stored at the facility have been sent abroad, with the rest being distributed locally. The doses have been handled across far-flung locations in 31 countries, including in South America, Africa, and Europe, as well as countries in the Arabian Gulf and the Middle East.
Sutton said countries in Africa, which do not have a developed cold chain in many of their regions, are expected to make use of Hope Consortium services as they try to get COVID-19 vaccine doses to their widely dispersed populations.
Human aid experts have already hailed the Hope Consortium as a timely effort to ensure vaccine equity. At a conference organised in March, Robert Mardini, director general of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Said the initiative could play an important role in getting vaccines to disadvantages peoples.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all in one way or another, but very unequally. People and communities affected by armed conflict or other types of violence have been the hardest hit — people like those in Syria, Yemen and northeastern Nigeria. Less than 50 per cent of health care facilities [in these area] were functioning even the pandemic struck, and the pandemic is one more deadly concern among many others.
"Ensuring equitable access to people in hard-to-reach areas, displaced populations, and detention facilities is also difficult, and there are currently 65 million people living in areas under the control of non-state armed groups who are excluded from basic services like health care. That is why the Hope Consortium is so timely and so important,” he said.
3 million doses a month
Till date, the Hope Consortium facility has processed up to three million COVID-19 vaccine doses a month. “This is a small number because there is still a limited number of vaccines in the supply chain. But we expect these numbers to step up significantly later this year, and we can then process one million vaccines every day,” Sutton said.
The Hope Consortium can also ensure access to medical professionals who can undertake vaccine administration and associated training of local professionals. One particular shipment has already seen a number of medical personnel travel to the recipient country and spend a month administering vaccines to residents.
The facility is also set to expand, as demand for its services increases. Sutton said four more similarly sized facilities are under development, and expected to be completed in mid-2022. “Even beyond the pandemic, we believe our cold chain solutions will be instrumental in helping economies vaccinate their populations against a host of infectious diseases,” he said.