‘Significant challenges’ predicted for rural Pfizer vaccination

3 minute read

Getting the first batch of doses to the most vulnerable requires an unprecedented level of infrastructure and coordination, a logistics expert says.

Vulnerable people in remote and rural areas eligible for the Pfizer/BioNTech could miss out on getting the appropriate vaccine against COVID-19 due to the complicated shipping requirements of the new drug.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine will have to be transported to Australia in -70°C conditions.

At this extremely low temperature, the vaccine has a shelf life of up to six months, according to Pfizer. In a dry-ice “thermal shipper” the vaccine can survive another 30 days. But once transferred to a regular vaccine fridge, at 2-8°C, it can only be stored for another five days.

“The biggest challenge regarding the transportation and distribution of the vaccine will be in the last mile,” said Associate Professor Victor Gekara, director of the Global Transport and Logistics Research Group at RMIT.
“Serious consideration will need to be given to the location of distribution centres in relation to the points of administration, particularly in remote, regional and isolated areas.”

And for those who live rurally, accessing a Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could also be dependent on their access to public transport and how far they live to their closest “Pfizer Hub”.

Moreover, the vaccine requires two doses, to be administered about three weeks apart, meaning that additional resourcing of transportation, delivery and storage is required for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccination program to be successful.

“This is the largest vaccination program that has ever been undertaken in Australian history and we’ve never really been prepared for the large numbers of trucks that might be required, for example in regional areas, to transport the vaccine,” said Professor Gekara.

Due to the challenges (not to mention expense) of shipping these vaccines, public education about who is eligible to receive the first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech doses could be crucial in making sure vulnerable people don’t miss out.

After the first round of 14.8 million Pfizer doses are distributed (phase 1a), more than 53 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will be made available to the rest of the population (phase 1b), including via general practice.

Currently the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccination plan has committed the first vaccines to frontline workers and border staff, quarantine staff, residential aged care and disability residents and staff by mid-February.

But that plan is hinged on the final approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.

Pfizer confirmed its vaccine would not arrive in Australia until two weeks after that approval was finalised.

But despite the deadline looming on the federal government’s promise for a mid-Febuary rollout, Professor Gekara remained optimistic.

“This has been designated as a priority program and all resources are going to be thrown behind delivering these vaccines,” he said.

The plan to deliver Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines to specific groups of people in Australia is a convenient way to make sure all resources can be dedicated exclusively to that effort, Professor Gekara said. “This is a high-priority program, and the government will pull out all the stops to make sure that it works, and it can be done.”

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