Three temperature-controlled trucks filled with Covid-19 vaccine vials pulled out of Serum Institute’s production plant in Pune at 5 a.m on Tuesday, marking the start of a mega immunization drive in the country. The jabs will be administered beginning January 16.
The trucks that headed to the Pune Airport were specially designed containers equipped with sensors monitoring location, temperature, light exposure and unusual jolting. The first flight to ship out the vaccine to Delhi was a SpiceJet Boeing-737 carrying 22 boxes. Each box weighing 32 kg contained around 12,000 doses of Covishield vaccines and gel packs- a portable plastic bag filled with refrigerant gel. A GoAir flight to Chennai followed shortly.
In all, nine flights transported over 5.6 million doses of the vaccine to 13 cities across the country, prompting civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri’s office to compare the effort to Hanuman carrying Sanjeevani from the Himalayas. Videh Kumar Jaipuriar, CEO of Delhi International Airport, summed up the exercise. ‘’We have synergized, collaborated over multiple months with exporters, importers, logistic companies, freight forwarders, government, police to ensure faster turnaround for vaccines.’’ The air cargo terminals at the airport would work 24×7 to support the vaccine movement. .
As the Spicejet aircraft landed in Delhi after a two-hour flight, the vaccine boxes were transported by cool dollies to warehouses which can maintain a capacity of 5.7 million vials a day.
After the first lot of doses landed in four major zonal centres–Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai–these were trucked to hospitals from where it would be distributed to thousands of nursing homes, hospitals and dispensaries across 718 districts. Vaccines arriving in Delhi and other hubs get the fast-lane treatment meant for priority packages, with an early delivery commitment the following day. That’s part of the logistics worked out for the vaccine transportation.
Kunal Agarwal, co-founder at Kool-Ex Cold Chain, however, said, “for us, carrying this vaccine is just a new product in our business which we have been doing for years. Whether Serum or Bharat Biotech, these are our old clients. Our trucks are bulk carriers of vaccines and are meant for long haul transport.’’ Truck fleets that work with pharmaceutical companies typically go through quality audits and certifications.
On a day with back to back vaccine-related activities, a Kool-Ex truck carried the vials from Delhi Airport to the Rajiv Gandhi Super Specialty Hospital (RGSSH), some 36 km away from the airport in the afternoon.
RGSSH, a key Covid facility in Delhi, is doubling up as a vaccine storage centre. “We have installed 90 deep freeze refrigerators in the last one month which will help us to maintain temperature between 2 and 8 degree Celsius. The freezers will give a warning beep sound in case temperature rises above 8 degree,” said Dr Chhavi Gupta, spokesperson at RGSSH.
Unlike the Pfizer vaccine requiring ultra low temperature, the Serum vaccine can be stored at 2-8 degrees. Even so, dry ice or refrigerant gel packs are a must. Nirbhik Narang, head of cargo division for state-owned Air India, which flew 23 boxes of vaccines to Ahmedabad, explained, ‘’we are packing the vaccines in gel packs as that is sufficient to maintain the required temperature for Covishield. When they are exported internationally, we may have to use dry ice,” he said.
As the vaccination day nears, planning is being stepped up for a complicated supply chain network comprising factory workers, truck drivers, pilots, bureaucrats, police, pharmacists and health-care workers to converge seamlessly, officials said.
But, there are worries around a patchy internet network—a hurdle for the Co-Win platform that’s at the core of tracking the vaccine delivery. As a doctor from a public hospital in Ghaziabad pointed out, the dry run had to be halted due to internet glitches.
There could be other issues as well like weather or mechanical problems. The process will become more complex as distribution moves from large urban and suburban areas to more remote locations with smaller populations, as was the case in Agartala, capital of Tripura, on Tuesday. It received only 100 dosages as one of the flights that was supposed to carry the vaccine was cancelled due to poor weather, a state government official said.
But the day one of the vaccine movement was termed successful by bureaucrats. “We can say that we have won the first round. Flights out of Pune have seamlessly transported out the vaccines. Priority take-off and landing status was given. Vaccines were loaded last, so that it can be unloaded first at the destination airport. Now off to the second stage,” said an official involved in the logistics process.