South Africa’s Renergen to start production of ultra-cold COVID-19 vaccine storage

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South African natural gas and helium producer Renergen will start production of its helium powered ultra-cold mobile freezer in the next few days and has started discussions to sell the units to logistics companies, it said on Monday.

Companies and governments around the world are working on ways to establish cold-chain storage and delivery systems for vaccines such as the Pfizer Inc and BioNTech shot, which must be shipped and stored at ultra-cold temperatures and can only last at standard fridge temperatures for up to five days.

As a solution, Renergen on Monday launched its prototype cold-chain storage called Cryo-Vacc, which has a temperature range of -150 degrees Celsius to 8C and can store vaccines for periods of up to 30 days without the need for any power supply.

“We’ve already started to take orders for this product. So we’re ready to start going into production in the next few days,” Renergen CEO Stefano Marani told journalists at the demo-launch event.

The company has partnered with local distributor DPD Laser, jointly owned and controlled by The Laser Group and European DPDgroup, which will buy the units from Renergen and then rent them out to its healthcare warehousing and logistics clients in South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Marani said the company had also received multiple expressions of interests and order requests from all over the world.

Cryo-Vacc uses liquid helium to transport by air, and liquid nitrogen to transport by road. Current cold-chain solutions use dry ice – frozen carbon dioxide – or cold plates, but this has not been sustainable for South Africa said DPD Laser CEO Anton Visagie.

“Our biggest challenges … we’ve got very high ambient temperatures in South Africa, we’ve got long distances to travel and often when you get to the point of vaccination there is a lack of infrastructure. There could be load shedding,” he said referring to frequently scheduled power cuts.

Another difficulty with vaccine transport is that aircraft can only carry a limited amount of dry ice as it turns into gas over time, displacing the breathable air in the cabin.

Marani said because liquid helium is only a fraction of the weight of liquid nitrogen, it will significantly reduce airfreight distribution costs and can accommodate up to 12 times more vials per flight compared to other solutions based on current flight safety regulations.

Earlier this month the health ministry called for bids from service providers to import, store and distribute COVID-19 vaccines at different required temperatures.

South Africa has yet to launch its COVID-19 vaccination programme and the government has decided to go with the Johnson & Johnson’s dose after trial results this month showed AstraZeneca’s two-shot vaccine was less effective against the new variant of the coronavirus dominating South African infections.