COVID-19 Vaccine Shows that the World Needs More Refrigeration and Less Anti-Refrigeration Climate Policy

Refrigeration has had a substantial positive impact on public health in the U.S. and other developed nations where it is in widespread use. Increased market penetration in the developing world could greatly improve public health and quality of life there as well—even more so given that many vaccines, like the ones for COVID-19, need to be kept cold until administered. Unfortunately, the climate agenda is impeding the spread of refrigeration.

In addition to providing dramatic improvements in the safety and quality of the food supply, refrigeration has many health care applications, including the delivery of vaccines. Particularly for the 3 billion people living in tropical developing nations, supplying vaccines is made much more difficult by inadequacies in the so-called cold chain needed to keep every dose at the proper temperature from the moment it is made until reaching the end user. All versions of the COVID-19 vaccine must be kept cold, and some require extreme cold.

The global logistics for COVID-19 vaccine delivery are yet to be worked out, but it can be packed in dry ice and flown to airports all over the world. That’s the easy part. The real challenge will be in keeping the vaccine cold during the last leg of the trip, from those airports to the rural populations and towns many miles away. This will be especially difficult throughout parts of Africa and Asia where refrigeration is not yet widespread.

And now, adding to the challenge is the climate agenda, which is slowing the spread of refrigeration around the world.

For one thing, most refrigeration is powered by electricity. Without reliable electricity there is no reliable cold chain. Though the world is gradually (and belatedly) becoming electrified, about 940 million people don’t have electricity at all and others don’t have it 24/7. Coal-fired electricity generation, usually the least-cost option for reliable power, has been the top target of the World Bank and the United Nations, who have prioritized the climate agenda over electrification.

The climate policy threats to refrigeration will only grow in the years ahead. The United Nations, through its Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol (Kigali Amendment), has targeted many of the cheapest and most effective refrigerants used in freezers and refrigerators, based on concerns that these refrigerants can leak out and contribute to the greenhouse effect. Though the Kigali Amendment has several provisions to assist developing nations with compliance, the forced transition to new refrigerants will complicate the market penetration of refrigeration in the years and decades ahead.

COVID-19 is only the latest disease necessitating a refrigerated vaccine, and it is entirely possible that others will emerge in the years ahead. But right now, international organizations have prioritized climate change policy over refrigeration and universal vaccinations.