The COVID-19 pandemic has increased our awareness of medical breakthroughs that might have gone unnoticed otherwise. Loss of vaccine efficacy is one such realisation. Reports indicate that as much as 37% of COVID-19 vaccines were lost in some states.
Vaccine wastage is a widespread problem that affects every type of vaccine, despite the fact that the idea may seem novel given the country’s current severe shortage. Recent research from the Immunization Technical Support Unit (ITSU) of the Indian Health Ministry shows that 25% of all vaccines are wasted every year.
Here’s the entry of this startup to provide a solution for this issue. The Emvolio is a portable battery-powered refrigeration unit that ensures the preset temperatures are maintained for up to 12 hours, and it was invented by a startup in Manipal to address this issue.
Poor, inefficient methods of handling the cold supply chain are to blame for this massive amount of wasted food. Vaccines require specific storage conditions for optimal efficacy. According to Mayur Shetty, CEO and founder of Blackfrog Technologies Pvt. Ltd., “the vaccines can’t be frozen or kept at non-optimal temperatures as it results in spoilage.”
He specifically mentions the COVID-19 vaccines and notes that “both Covaxin (BBL) and Covishield (AZ) need to be stored in temperatures between 2°C and 8°C and are freeze-sensitive.”
Young entrepreneur, Mayur explains that when shipping to the most out-of-the-way areas of India, it becomes difficult to keep the products at the ideal temperature until delivery.
The 28-year-old explains, “The conventional approach of using iceboxes to provide last mile vaccine transportation is still widely used. Because of the lack of temperature regulation, the system is unsuitable for such logistical use, and the potential ineffectiveness of temperature-sensitive vaccines poses a problem.
A daylong immunisation drive will typically require between 30 and 50 vials, which are easily transportable in a single Emvolio device. Features built into the device include the ability to track temperature, location, battery life, and vial status in real time. It can also work with solar power.
Implementing a 99% Vaccination Rate
The device’s patented technology for precision cold-chain and vaccine traceability systems was funded by the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC). The Venture Centre at NCL, Pune, and Social Alpha, two of the most prominent impact investors, worked with the company to create it.
Mayur explains that the technology provides a layer of temperature-controlled air around the contents of the cold chamber. This precise temperature is maintained by a Proportional Integral Derivative (PID) controller, which also prevents the possibility of cross-contamination and the release of harmful refrigerant gases. Without any motors or other moving parts, it requires very little upkeep, he says.
Mayur claims the setup eliminates any potential for hot or cold spots within the chamber. Low frequency of freeze-thaw cycles is an additional benefit. The contents of the vial are exposed to air every time the lid is opened to retrieve the vial. About 96 percent faster than the conventional ice-based system, the built-in rapid cooling technology helps bring the cold chamber back to the required temperature.
In 2017, the company started developing the product, and in 2019, they released it to the public. Over 200 of these devices, which retail for Rs 54,000 plus taxes, are currently in use in hospitals and health centres across rural areas of five states, including Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Bihar, Jharkhand, and Manipur. The National Health Mission programme at the national level is increasing production.
“We started using the device in early 2020, and it has been a game-changer for the vaccination program, especially in hilly areas,” says Dr. Pritam Laisiram, the medical officer in charge of the Primary Health Centre (PHC) in Phungyar in the Kamjong district of Manipur.
In order to reach the intended recipient, vaccines must travel a considerable distance, and the doctor warns that doing so while ensuring that they remain at the proper temperature is challenging. Approximately one hundred kilometres separate the health centre and Imphal, where the vaccines are purchased. The vials take an additional 3–4 hours to reach outlying areas. About 30 percent of the vaccines are lost every month due to the ice melting in the iceboxes in about 1.5 hours, he says.
Yet, with Emvolio, the amount of waste has been cut down significantly. Nearly all vaccines are suitable for use. “This opens the door to vaccinating an extra 20 people every month,” he says.
According to Dr. Pritam, “Furthermore, the reduction in wastefulness enables optimised use of human resources in vaccine delivery, as the repetitive immunisation trips to reimburse for the unviable vaccines are not required.” He also notes that the device is much less complicated to use than its predecessor and that trained nurses and other personnel can operate it with little effort.
“We have used the device to vaccinate four primary health care centres covering two villages and it has been extremely effective,” says Ramprasad V, monitoring and evaluation officer at Swami Vivekanand Youth Mission (SVYM) in Sirgur, Karnataka. The heat in the icebox cannot be adjusted, remaining permanently below freezing or exceeding the set limits. This apparatus aids in constant temperature maintenance.
Mayur notes that he encountered some difficulties while working on the system’s development. Thermodynamics play a role in developing the product, and the refrigeration process is inefficient. So it was a tall order to design a system that could run on batteries and still fulfil all the prerequisites. Here, we implemented ideas from biomimicry, a technological strategy that mimics the ways in which nature works. He says that, while keeping the price low, we improved the insulation by using some basic mechanical principles, which made it more energy efficient.
He continues by saying that another obstacle they had to overcome was the users’ resistance to change. It’s not easy to get people to give up what they’ve been doing regularly, even if it’s not the best option. He adds, “There was also a significant financial commitment involved.”
To combat counterfeiting and increase transparency, the company plans to implement IoT in the next release.
“At this time, storage facilities have access to real-time intelligence on the vaccine. After vaccines are distributed, there is no way to track them. He continues, “Our next innovation is to link the QR-codes on vaccine vials to the recipients’ vaccination cards.
Mayur claims that the device’s consolidated data will make it possible to track down the precise dose of vaccine that was administered. He continues, “The move will help to address any complications in the case of adverse reactions, counterfeits, and even curb black market activities.”
He argues that widespread adoption of the technology will reduce costs and increase accessibility for a wide range of people.