The struggle to acquire and distribute COVID-19 vaccines in many African countries is only the latest iteration of a long-standing problem: poor electricity access. Reliable and easy to install, distributed solar may be the answer for the world’s rural health clinics.
As the global COVAX initiative begins to ramp up, countries like Mali and the Democratic Republic of the Congo face a daunting problem, write Cyrus Sinai, a geographer at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill’s Carolina Population Center, and Rob Fetter, a senior policy associate at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, in a post for The Conversation. That is: getting COVID-19 vaccine into arms depends on a reliable “cold chain” in the form of “an uninterrupted system of storage, transport, and delivery of vaccines at low temperatures, all the way from national warehouses to local clinics.”
While COVID-19 vaccines need to be kept cold (anywhere from 8° all the way down to – 70°C), they aren’t the only ones that would benefit from such infrastructure. Many other vaccines, like those for polio and measles, “must be stored between 2° and 8°C,” requiring cold chain capacity that simply doesn’t exist in regions where electricity access is often unreliable or outright unavailable. Pointing to a 2013 Global Health Science and Practice review, the authors note only 28% of clinics in the 11 African countries surveyed had reliable electricity, “and 26% had no electricity access at all.”
Sinai and Fetter themselves are part of an ongoing collaborative effort, the Duke University Energy Access Project, to gather more data on this debilitating gap in electricity access for rural health care facilities.
But as they collect this critical information, real action needs to be taken now: even as the virus continues its spread, vast amounts of vaccine is being made unusable by electricity disruptions. “Unreliable power is extremely costly for vaccination efforts,” the authors write. “Each year, nearly 50% of freeze-dried and 25% of liquid vaccines are wasted.”
But solar power—reliable, efficient, highly adaptable, and easy to install—may well provide the solution for vaccine distribution.
Surveying a few of the critical components in a cold chain, Sinai and Fetter highlight the particular value of solar-powered refrigerators, those with battery storage as well as “solar direct drive” models that “use solar energy to directly freeze water into an ice wall”.
Observing that successful vaccine delivery requires national health programs “to monitor vaccine stocks and refrigerator temperatures in remote, rural health facilities in real time, and alert them when deviations occur that may compromise their integrity,” the authors say solar can power technology like cell towers that make such monitoring and communication possible.
“As the COVAX initiative scales up across the continent, governments and development partners should consider how solar-based solutions can aid vaccine delivery,” write Sinai and Fetter. “They are invaluable tools—perhaps even equal in importance to the vaccines themselves.”