How do we get Covid vaccines to rural areas? This KZN innovator has a plan
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Durban – As South Africa powers ahead with its mass Covid-19 vaccination programme in a race against time to reach herd immunity before a fourth wave strikes, the challenge of how to get the vaccine – which must be stored at ultra-cold temperatures – to rural and far-flung areas looms large.
Mthobisi Zondi, a KwaZulu-Natal-born entrepreneur with a doctorate in engineering, believes he has a solution.
Zondi, 46, says that while big international manufacturers have over the years established sophisticated facilities for the manufacture and storage of vaccines, not much attention has been paid to what he calls the “last mile” of the delivery – which is getting the vaccine from the distribution hub to the end user.
He says he has developed a solution that would effectively ensure that vaccines are transported to where they are needed in a reliable manner that ensures they are kept at the required temperature.
Zondi’s LogiDist Vaccine Distribution Solution focuses on the last mile and comprises a 1.2 ton refrigerated delivery truck that is rugged enough to service rural areas with poor road infrastructure. The truck has vaccine transport containers that can move several thousands of vials at ultra-cold temperatures (-70C).
It also has a generator-powered (backup) engine-electric refrigeration unit, a prefabricated scalable clinic which can be used as an inoculation station and temporary vaccine storage facility.
The unit is fitted with solar panels for backup power and vaccine storage freezers with a capacity of up to 800 litres which can store vaccines at temperatures of -70C to -80C.
Zondi says the solution is scalable and flexible and can service the logistics segment that transports vaccines inter-provincially or the one that moves vaccines from regional distribution centres to end users intra-provincially.
International manufacturers of vaccines already have the infrastructure to manufacture and store the vaccine at required environmental parameters. The challenge in developing countries is usually getting the vaccine to the point of use without compromising its integrity.
“This is arguably the most challenging segment of the vaccine cold-chain distribution network, and one that requires stringent regulation and monitoring,” Zondi says.
‘In South Africa and the region, the challenge is further exacerbated by the poor road infrastructure and health facilities in rural areas. The prevailing challenge, therefore, is how to equitably and efficiently distribute the vaccines to all corners of South Africa such that no citizen suffers a disadvantage because of where they reside.”
Zondi pointed out that the rapid virus mutation and the emergence of new variants have prompted some countries such as the US to recommend that booster shots are taken every eight months.
“This indicates that the vaccination programme will probably be with us for a while. The South African government has worked tirelessly to ensure that vaccines with the right efficacy are sourced from approved international manufacturers and brought to the country in a safe and reliable manner. The next challenge to be addressed is that of getting vaccines to the end user while maintaining their integrity,” he said.
According to the latest data from the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, a total of 15 188 787 South Africans have been given at least one shot of the Covid-19 vaccine. Gauteng leads the way in terms of doses administered with 3 956 903 shots administered, followed by KwaZulu-Natal with 2 535 928 and the Western Cape with 2 502 471 shots administered.
On Tuesday, a total of 248 236 people were given the Covid-19 vaccine.