health technology

Covid vaccines and the off-grid fridge

In 2018 I wrote a whole week’s worth of posts on refrigeration, including a profile of the company SureChill. They manufacture a fridge that works on a completely different technology to any other fridge in the world, and they sell to developing countries for vaccine storage.

The key selling point for SureChill is that their machines stay cool even when the power goes out, and can run for days with no electricity supply. It makes them perfect for clinics running on solar power without batteries or grid back-up, and where the power is obviously off overnight. It’s just as important in places where the grid power supply is unreliable.

Vaccines rely on refrigeration to make them effective, and that’s more specific than you might think. They have to be chilled but not frozen, and with conventional refrigeration technologies, the cold chain doesn’t always operate with enough precision to maintain that balance. Even in developed countries, a significant percentage of vaccines will be stored or transported at sub-optimal temperatures. Many doses are thus rendered unusable and have to be thrown away. In a pandemic, and its huge global roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, this has never been more important.

In Mali, SureChill run almost the entire cold chain, with technologies that don’t have the same problems as traditional refrigeration. They simply cannot freeze, and the WHO recognise their system as the gold standard in vaccine supply chains. It’s quite possible that Mali has a better vaccine cold chain than many wealthier countries.

It’s an interesting example of how a technology developed for lower income countries with less reliable infrastructure can actually turn out to be better. It’s a technology that is smart but also simple, more advanced without being more complicated. And one day, eventually, you and I might even own a fridge as efficient as the ones clinics are using in Mali right now.

Refrigeration is still an underappreciated climate change question. Check out some more posts on the topic:

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