In their report to the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Citizens Climate Assembly stated that the climate emergency “Requires immediate action at all levels of society. If we fail to act now, we will fail our current and future generations, in Scotland and across the world.”
Climate change considerations
In a recent poll voters thought that most issues would be better dealt with if Scotland were Independent. The only issues on which Scottish voters thought they would suffer by leaving the U.K. were foreign affairs, defence and vaccine supplies.
This article will address the latter concern i.e., the security of vaccine supplies and how Scotland can ensure sufficient vaccine to deliver to our population and how this can be achieved sustainably, with climate change measures factored in.
Vaccine expert Prashant Yadav, an affiliate Professor of operations and process management for a major manufacturer (INSEAD), mentioned that in order to meet global vaccine demand, manufacturers needed to look at “scaling out” the manufacturing process as opposed to “scaling up” and to seriously consider distributive manufacturing.
Distributive manufacturing for future resilience
In creating a resilient Scotland, we should consider the benefits of distributive manufacturing, using continuous production platforms and the establishment of regional vaccine manufacturing and delivery hubs. Dovetailing climate change considerations with any post-pandemic economic recovery and future resilience strategy is vital.
Glaxo Smithkline has reported that continuous manufacturing platforms as opposed to batch reactor processes can reduce water use by up to 83%, solvent use by 42% and overall reduction in manufacturing carbon footprint by as much as 52%. Keeping the manufacturing platforms operational 24 hours a day, has the added bonus of dramatically reducing waste and energy consumption.
An assessment done by Moderna in the US has concluded that new mRNA vaccine manufacturing facilities can be built in 3–4 months. Therefore, tech transfers and patents, if waived, could deliver vaccine to smaller and developing countries in a shorter time than currently projected, and with a reduced carbon output.
Fully equipped, modular units for end-to-end manufacture of a range of pharmaceutical products, including the production of vaccine and its components are deliverable. This “scaling out” of vaccine manufacture would prove effective in isolating cluster outbreaks in urban, remote and rural areas, without the need to lockdown larger areas, thereby reducing economic impact and simultaneously lowering the environmental impact, with the introduction of shorter supply chains.
There is a small array of vaccine types which are manufactured but the preferred vaccine type for COVID-19 for the time being is mRNA vaccine, which is more readily reproducible and less complex to manufacture than conventional vaccines.
These vaccines can be produced with 99.7% less capital and 99.9% less physical plant compared to the manufacture of conventional vaccines and production facilities can also be retooled to make new vaccines 1,000% faster. Production costs are no longer the primary driver and indeed savings can be made whilst reducing the carbon footprint of business operations. The business case has changed with the introduction of smaller manufacturing platforms and recent developments in vaccines requiring lower mRNA concentrations has resulted in increased yields and consequently more doses.
Why shorter supply chains are needed to achieve climate targets
One of the downsides of some vaccines is their requirement to be kept at low temperatures as mRNA breaks down easily. Transport as airfreight is problematic and carbon emissions from aircraft accounted for 3.8% of total CO2 emissions, in 2017. The aviation sector, when compared to other forms of transport creates 13.9% of total transport emissions. There are also significant impacts from aviation activities from non-CO2 emissions such as Nitrous oxides, which are highlighted in an EU report and confirmed to be as important in total as those of carbon dioxide.
There are restrictions on the volume of refrigerated goods that can be carried in aircraft holds for health & safety reasons. This can reduce capacity in an aircraft hold by as much as 50%.
The requirement for low temperature storage and distribution has a significant impact on the environment, aside from putting countries which lack reliable “cold chain” resources at a distinct disadvantage.
Companies used hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) gases to freeze vaccines such as Pfizer to -70°C at the start of the pandemic, to allow for their storage and transportation, routinely across long distances, using multiple modes of transport including air freight. Emissions from HFCs have a global warming effect up to 23,000 times greater than CO2.
The climate impact of packaging
Vaccine packaging materials can contribute significantly to carbon emissions and so a reduction in packaging is desirable if climate change targets are to be achieved. At the manufacturing stage, vaccines could be filled into bulk bags containing higher multiples of doses or directly into syringes, thereby reducing reliance on borosilicate glass, which is currently the most widely used packaging material.
Strict guidelines for international shipping mean cartons should weigh less than 50 kg. Increased amounts of thermal packaging are required for vaccines and not all is sustainable. Expandable polystyrene (350,000 tons used annually) which is difficult to recycle and plastic which can only be recycled a limited number of times, adds to the burden on the environment. Switching to the EPS foam ClimaCell® can reduce carbon emissions by 65%.
Vaccines delivered near to the manufacturing facility would increase opportunity to recycle any packaging that is absolutely necessary.
Until newer vaccine delivery methods are available; e.g. intranasal using nasal sprays, plastic syringes are being used, which as we are all aware, is an environmental challenge in itself. Most syringes used in vaccination programmes are incinerated.
However, a reduction in incineration ash is possible if syringes are made from cyclic olefin polymer; e.g. Syreen, which is free from toxic metal oxides.
It is entirely possible to pre-fill syringes with vaccine, avoid the use of borosilicate glass vials, and the reduction in weight, reduces the amount of packaging needed by 30%. If Syreen is used there is also a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions related to transport and storage.
Building preparedness & reduction of carbon emissions using modular manufacturing
National security and preparedness is important and the ability of regional manufacturing hubs to produce critical pharmaceutical product “on demand” would be of great benefit.
Personalised medicine, smaller quantities of more expensive to manufacture products or those which are normally prohibitively expensive to manufacture in smaller quantities using larger platforms; e.g. orphan drugs or formulations used to treat rare diseases, could be produced rapidly, as modular based platforms can be reconfigured more rapidly and reduce waste.
Portable modular units which could be interchanged and /or combined could have advantages in the manufacture and delivery of pharmaceutical products at the point of care and eradicate the need for long term storage facilities and reduce supply chains.
Recently, a fully operational modular platform used to manufacture a high-volume generic drug met all production targets and reduced manufacturing costs by 30–50%, and solvent used for purification by more than 60%. Other environmental benefits included a reduction in energy costs by 50–60% and solvent recovery equipment fitted as standard, allowed solvent to be reused. The facility footprint was also reduced by approximately 90%, and the time taken to manufacture the product greatly reduced from months to less than 48 hours.
The Covid pandemic has highlighted the complexity and fragmentation of supply chains. The Pharma industry is beginning to recognise the need for the implementation of a distributive manufacturing plan, which will ensure supply chains are safeguarded and manufacturing targets can be increased. Having one massive vaccine manufacturing base is no longer secure or acceptable. Should a catastrophic event occur at a manufacturing site, impacts on supply chains can be minimised by having smaller multiple sites manufacturing the same product.
The establishment of regional vaccine manufacturing hubs would be operated on the same lines, so as to minimise risks of disruptions to the vaccine manufacturing process and maintain continuity of supply.
The introduction of regional vaccine manufacturing hubs, using renewable energy in the process and lower requirements for packaging could therefore ensure a significant reduction in carbon emissions.
The validation of a COVID vaccine manufacturing platform could ramp up progress for vaccines against other infectious diseases and also provide valuable opportunities to progress research, development and manufacture of mRNA cancer vaccines.
How Scotland and indeed the world responds to the global challenge of climate change in the context of vaccine manufacture, will be dependent upon lessons learnt from the COVID pandemic and the recommendations of the ongoing COVID enquiries. Utilising innovative novel strategies in reducing carbon emissions needs to be part of that process.
Scotland is on a mission to achieve climate change targets which cannot be achieved without implementing multiple solutions and adopting creative policies. Including a programme of distributive manufacturing, through the establishment of mobile manufacturing hubs in its recovery plan, has potential to address the two major challenges of climate change and future pandemics. An opportunity not to be missed.
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