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COVID-19 vaccine could revolutionize cold storage around the world

Photo: REUTERS / Dado Ruvic / 09 Dec 2020

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Vaccine rollout is an opportunity to create a new, sustainable cold chain that will be of use well beyond the current crisis

After 11 dark months, the end of the COVID-19 pandemic is tantalizingly in sight. In recent weeks, two coronavirus vaccines – one from Pfizer-BioNTech and another from Moderna – were revealed to be more than 90 per cent effective in clinical trials.

But if they’re approved by regulators, getting the vaccines into the hands, or arms, of billions, will be a daunting task.

The Pfizer jab requires long-term storage at -70°C while Moderna’s must be kept at -20 °C long term. (Both can last for shorter periods in a regular refrigerator, where temperatures are between 2°C and 8°C.) The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine can be stored and transported long term at regular fridge temperatures.

In any of the above scenarios, rolling out COVID-19 vaccines on a global scale will require an enormous expansion in capacity of the global cold chain, the linked system of infrastructure that allows a product to move from its site of production to final destination while remaining appropriately chilled.

“The vaccination against COVID-19 is an inflection point that will determine how cold chains are handled on a global scale for the next two decades,” emphasizes Ligia Noronha, Director of the Economy Division at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

In many developing countries, the technologies are sparse, and experts believe the demands of a COVID-19 vaccine could finally lead to long neglected investments in their cold chains. They warn, though, against quick and dirty solutions.

“It can go in three directions,” says Toby Peters, a professor of cold economy at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. “One is that we solve the problem, but we do it in a way which is financially and environmentally inefficient. Or, we do it in a way which is a little bit greener. Finally, we can solve it in a way which actually has a lasting legacy.”

Bottlenecks in developing countries

One place where distribution challenges loom large is Africa.

Universal vaccine access is a challenge in developing economies, due to inadequate refrigerated cold chain networks, especially in rural communities, which have the highest poverty levels. This impacts not just vaccine access, but also food security and livelihoods. Farmers lose anywhere between 30% – 50% of food produced for human consumption due to poor post-harvest practices and lack of cold storage.

To tackle those problems, UNEP is partnering with the governments of Rwanda and the United Kingdom, and a consortium of universities on a new Africa Centre of Excellence for Sustainable Cooling and Cold Chain (ACES).  With a hub in Kigali and Living Laboratories anticipated in rural communities throughout Africa, it focuses on developing cutting-edge cold chain solutions. The first phase is well underway with an in-depth cooling needs and gap assessment nearing completion, allocation of the site on the University of Rwanda campus, and initial layout of the facilities.

More broadly, the UNEP-led Cool Coalition is bringing together academics and industry experts to help countries advance sustainable cold chains fit for both vaccines and agricultural produce.

Rethinking cold chains

Globally, the scale of a coronavirus vaccine rollout means that simply expanding the current vaccination cold chain is not feasible. Child vaccination programmes, for example, typically reach around 115 million infants annually worldwide. Estimates for vaccination levels required to achieve effective global ‘herd immunity’ to COVID-19, by contrast, run as high as 5.5 billion people.  And then with two doses required.

“It’s a completely different scale and complexity of problem that you have to solve,” explains Peters, who co-leads the technical assistance team behind ACES. “This is about speed and volume.”

A business-as-normal approach would see widespread use of polluting diesel generators to power fridges in places where electricity supply is fragile or non-existent. It could mean the use of climate warming refrigerants such as hydrofluorocarbons that can have a global warming potential hundreds or even thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide.

Experts are also concerned that states will struggle to handle the enormous quantities of solid waste – from glass vials to used needles – that a global vaccination programme will generate.

That’s why many are urging countries to consider the environment and strive for long-term solutions while ramping up their vaccination programmes.

“If best practices are embedded now, there is a chance for what Brian Holuj, a programme management officer at UNEP’s United for Efficiency (U4E) Initiative, describes as “solutions that stick.”

That means better refrigerants, superior efficiency, and less reliance on polluting diesel generators, he explains. It requires a trained workforce equipped to optimize the system and service its components. There will likely also be new opportunities for sustainable cooling experts in the ‘cool’ marketplace. Measures will also need to be put in place to manage the needles and other disposables inherent in a widespread vaccination campaign.

Long-term solutions

As billions of dollars will be invested in storage and handling of the COVID-19 vaccine, experts are exploring how to do this with a mind towards the future.

Globally, a third of food production is lost to wastage between farm and fork. Better cooling could significantly reduce that figure and bring higher incomes for farmers. A UNEP-supported programme in Tamil Nadu state in southern India, for example, works with refrigeration firm Tabreed – to provide sustainable cooling for local mango farmers. A programme like that could work for both COVID-19 vaccines and later as an enduring legacy for farm produce.

“If we establish cold chains for COVID immunization efforts that can later be used for agricultural purposes the legacy impact would be much greater. It would be hugely beneficial for the countries, a double investment of sorts,” says Benjamin Hickman, who is coordinating the Cool Coalition’s work on cold chains.

Back in the United Kingdom, Toby Peters points out that, given the sheer scale of the cold chain requirements for a vaccine, it may be more productive to repurpose current food distribution systems, rather than upscaling medical networks.

“While we have to manage cross-contamination risk, a fridge doesn’t know whether it’s holding a vaccine or a tomato,” he says. “Do you even use the medical cold chain to take it to these big new vaccination points? Or do you go to Booker’s or Brake Brothers and say, you’ve got a very highly complex, highly effective cold logistics network for managing cold products.” (Booker’s and Brakes, previously known as Brake Bros, are large food wholesalers in the UK.)

UN Environment

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Science & Technology

Iran among five pioneers of nanotechnology

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Prioritizing nanotechnology in Iran has led to this country’s steady placement among the five pioneers of the nanotechnology field in recent years, and approximately 20 percent of all articles provided by Iranian researchers in 2020 are relative to this area of technology.

Iran has been introduced as the 4th leading country in the world in the field of nanotechnology, publishing 11,546 scientific articles in 2020.

The country held a 6 percent share of the world’s total nanotechnology articles, according to StatNano’s monthly evaluation accomplished in WoS databases.

There are 227 companies in Iran registered in the WoS databases, manufacturing 419 products, mainly in the fields of construction, textile, medicine, home appliances, automotive, and food.

According to the data, 31 Iranian universities and research centers published more than 50 nano-articles in the last year. 

In line with China’s trend in the past few years, this country is placed in the first stage with 78,000 nano-articles (more than 40 percent of all nano-articles in 2020), and the U.S. is at the next stage with 24,425 papers. These countries have published nearly half of the whole world’s nano-articles.

In the following, India with 9 percent, Iran with 6 percent, and South Korea and Germany with 5 percent are the other head publishers, respectively.

Almost 9 percent of the whole scientific publications of 2020, indexed in the Web of Science database, have been relevant to nanotechnology.

There have been 191,304 nano-articles indexed in WoS that had to have a 9 percent growth compared to last year. The mentioned articles are 8.8 percent of the whole produced papers in 2020.

Iran ranked 43rd among the 100 most vibrant clusters of science and technology (S&T) worldwide for the third consecutive year, according to the Global Innovation Index (GII) 2020 report.

The country experienced a three-level improvement compared to 2019.

Iran’s share of the world’s top scientific articles is 3 percent, Gholam Hossein Rahimi She’erbaf, the deputy science minister, has announced.

The country’s share in the whole publications worldwide is 2 percent, he noted, highlighting, for the first three consecutive years, Iran has been ranked first in terms of quantity and quality of articles among Islamic countries.

Sourena Sattari, vice president for science and technology has said that Iran is playing the leading role in the region in the fields of fintech, ICT, stem cell, aerospace, and is unrivaled in artificial intelligence.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Free And Equal Internet Access As A Human Right

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Having internet access in a free and equal way is very important in contemporary world. Today, there are more than 4 billion people who are using internet all around the world. Internet has become a very important medium by which the right to freedom of speech and the right to reach information can be exercised. Internet has a central tool in commerce, education and culture.

Providing solutions to develop effective policies for both internet safety and equal Internet access must be the first priority of governments. The Internet offers individuals power to seek and impart information thus states and organizations like UN have important roles in promoting and protecting Internet safety. States and international organizations play a key role to ensure free and equal Internet access.

The concept of “network neutrality is significant while analyzing equal access to Internet and state policies regulating it. Network Neutrality (NN) can be defined as the rule meaning all electronic communications and platforms should be exercised in a non-discriminatory way regardless of their type, content or origin. The importance of NN has been evident in COVID-19 pandemic when millions of students in underdeveloped regions got victimized due to the lack of access to online education.

 Article 19/2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights notes the following:

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

Internet access and network neutrality directly affect human rights. The lack of NN undermines human rights and causes basic human right violations like violating freedom of speech and freedom to reach information. There must be effective policies to pursue NN. Both nation-states and international organizations have important roles in making Internet free, safe and equally reachable for the people worldwide. States should take steps for promoting equal opportunities, including gender equality, in the design and implementation of information and technology. The governments should create and maintain, in law and in practice, a safe and enabling online environment in accordance with human rights.

It is known that, the whole world has a reliance on internet that makes it easy to fullfill basic civil tasks but this is also threatened by increasing personal and societal cyber security threats. In this regard, states must fulfill their commitment to develop effective policies to attain universal access to the Internet in a safe way.

 As final remarks, it can be said that, Internet access should be free and equal for everyone. Creating effective tools to attain universal access to the Internet cannot be done only by states themselves. Actors like UN and EU have a major role in this process as well.

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Future Energy Systems Need Clear AI Boundaries

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Today, almost 60% of people worldwide have access to the Internet via an ever-increasing number of electronic devices. And as Internet usage grows, so does data generation.

Data keeps growing at unprecedented rates, increasingly exceeding the abilities of any human being to analyse it and discover its underlying structures.

Yet data is knowledge. This is where artificial intelligence (AI) comes in. Today’s high-speed computing systems can “learn” from experience and, thus, effectively replicate human decision-making.

Besides holding its own among global chess champions, AI aids in converting unstructured data into actionable knowledge. At the same time, it enables the creation of even more insightful AI – a win-win for all. However, this doesn’t happen without challenges along the way.

Commercial uses of AI have expanded steadily in recent years across finance, healthcare, education and other sectors. Now, with COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions, many countries have turned to innovative technologies to halt the spread of the virus.

The pandemic, therefore, has further accelerated the global AI expansion trend.

Energy systems need AI, too.

Rapidly evolving smart technology is helping to make power generation and distribution more efficient and sustainable. AI and the Big Data that drives it have become an absolute necessity.  Beyond just facilitating and optimising, these are now the basic tools for fast, smart decision making.

With the accelerating shift to renewable power sources, AI can help to reduce operating costs and boost efficiency. Crucially, AI-driven “smart grids” can manage variable supply, helping to maximise the use of solar and wind power.

Read more in IRENA’s Innovation Toolbox.

Risks must be managed to maximise the benefits.

AI usage in the energy sector faces expertise-related and financial constraints.

Decision makers, lacking specialised knowledge, struggle to appreciate the wide-ranging benefits of smart system management. In this respect, energy leaders have proven more conservative than those in other sectors, such as healthcare.

Meanwhile, installing powerful AI tools without prior experience brings considerable risks. Data loss, poor customisation, system failures, unauthorised access – all these errors can bring enormous costs.

Yet like it or not, interconnected devices are on the rise.

What does this all mean for the average consumer?

Smart phones, smart meters and smart plugs, connected thermostats, boilers and smart charging stations have become familiar, everyday items. Together, such devices can form the modern “smart home”, ideally powered by rooftop solar panels.

AI can help all of us, the world’s energy consumers, become prosumers, producing and storing our own energy and interacting actively with the wider market. Our data-driven devices, in turn, will spawn more data, which helps to scale up renewables and maximise system efficiency.

But home data collection raises privacy concerns. Consumers must be clearly informed about how their data is used, and by whom. Data security must be guaranteed. Consumer privacy regulations must be defined and followed, with cybersecurity protocols in place to prevent data theft.

Is the future of AI applications in energy bright?

Indeed, the outlook is glowing, but only if policy makers and societies strike the right balance between innovation and risk to ensure a healthy, smart and sustainable future.

Much about AI remains to be learned. As its use inevitably expands in the energy sector, it cannot be allowed to work for the benefit of only a few. Clear strategies need to be put in place to manage the AI use for the good of all.

IRENA

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