How do you keep vaccines cool? (Hint: look to space)

The Arktek, developed by a team at Intellectual Ventures Lab, has been deployed in Sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia.

An Arktek device is transported by camel in Ethiopia (2013). Credit: Shahim Yassin, Afar Pastoralists Development Association

Remember the last time you went in to get the flu shot? If you didn’t have your eyes closed like I did, you may have noticed the nurse pull the vaccine vial from a refrigerator. That’s because most vaccines need to be kept at a temperature between 32 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit (0 – 10 degrees Celcius) from the time they leave the factory all the way to the time they are used on a patient. If not, they lose their potency.

Now imagine you are a health worker living in a remote village in Ethiopia with poor roads, spotty power and few working refrigerators. How would you keep the vaccines cool on the journey from the district hospital hundreds of miles away to your village, and where would you store them once you arrived?

Keeping vaccines at the right temperature along this temperature-controlled supply chain - known as the “cold chain” - is a big challenge in the developing world. About one fifth of the vaccines in poor countries spoil before they can be used due to limited access to power and refrigeration. As a result, many children -- 1 in 5 worldwide – are not protected against diseases like measles and tetanus. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1.5 million children lose their lives from vaccine-preventable diseases every year.

This is the problem a team of Intellectual Ventures Lab scientists and our partners at Global Good set out to solve in 2009. What they came up with is the Arktek™ device.

 

 

Arktek is a super thermos that can store a month’s supply of vaccines – approximately 300 vials – using ice packs for a village of 6,000 people in 100 degree plus heat, without electricity. What’s the secret? Vacuum thermal insulation technology – the same technology that has been used to protect spacecraft from temperature extremes while in space and upon re-entry. To learn more about the incredible science behind this device, click here.

The Arktek was designed to fill a gap in the vaccine cold chain for “last mile” delivery in developing countries, especially in remote areas where there is no access to a power grid and a lack of infrastructure. Since the WHO granted PQS prequalification to the Arktek in 2015, more than 200 devices have been deployed in Nigeria, Ethiopia, Senegal, India, Nepal and Fiji by our China-based partner AUCMA. We expect many more devices to be deployed in developing countries in the coming months.

Of course, as inventors, we rarely decline an opportunity to tinker with our own inventions, especially if it helps us better respond to evolving challenges on the ground.

In the midst of the worst known Ebola outbreak in 2014, the WHO and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) requested cold chain vaccine storage support for an Ebola vaccine trial taking place in Sierra Leone and Guinea. These remote, low-resource settings presented numerous challenges that were exacerbated by the need to store the Ebola vaccine at much lower temperatures (-76 to -112 degrees Fahrenheit / -60 to -80 degrees Celsius).

We modified the device to reliably do so by using a unique phase change material that freezes at the required temperature range. Arktek Deep Freeze is capable of storing the vaccines for 6.5 days in daytime temperatures of 109 degrees (43 degrees Celsius) and nighttime temperatures of 77 degrees (25 degrees Celsius), and allows for vaccine access eight times a day. Not only did Arktek DF demonstrate reliable thermal performance in the field, it exceeded all expectations.

When it comes to maintaining the vaccine cold chain, different scenarios require different technological approaches; Arktek is not a ‘one size fits all’ solution. More information on Arktek and other cold chain equipment can be found in the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation’s (GAVIs) new Cold Chain Equipment Technology Guide, or by contacting us at Arktek@intven.com.