The urgency triggered by COVID vaccine is a great opportunity for India to build all the cold storage it has needed for a long time

The urgency triggered by COVID vaccine is a great opportunity for India to build all the cold storage it has needed for a long time
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  • India needs to ramp up its cold storage facilities to accommodate the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine within the country.
  • The shortfall in India’s cold storage extended to before the outbreak when food supply in excess of refrigeration capacity led to wastage.
  • This is why experts believe the ramp-up of cold storage will have long-lasting benefits across industries even once the pandemic is over.
India has been debating the need for cold storage seemingly forever⁠. The issue has been raised every time there is a shortage of food items, or every time someone has argued in favour of allowing foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retail.

However, now the need to ensure the supply of COVID-19 vaccines has triggered an emergency need for building ample cold storage that will be useful even after the pandemic.

India's cold storage and the COVID-19 vaccine bottleneck

India will need to administer around 1.7 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to immunise most of its adult population. While it's true that the country has more than ample means to manufacture the required vaccine doses, it currently doesn't have enough cold storage to keep it all.

"The limited capacity of cold storage in India will be a big challenge. It will not be easy," India's Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan acknowledged during a press conference last week.

The lack of standardised protocols, plagued by an unreliable power supply, and struggling even to store the most basic agricultural produce are signs that India's cold storage facilities will be tested as the country faces its greatest challenge yet.

The cold storage challenge:
Total doses required to immunise India’s population1.66 billion
India’s total vaccine manufacturing capacity2.4 billion
India’s total estimated cold storage capacity450-550 million
Source: Company data, Credit Suisse estimates

Logistics companies and airlines, key stakeholders in ensuring that the COVID-19 vaccine can get from one place to another, have the required capability — but even they’re struggling with the question of capacity.

How much cold storage does India need for the COVID-19 vaccine?

In order to store the COVID-19 properly, the government will have to utilise a part of the infrastructure available under the current immunisation program and need support from players in the private sector. But the utilisation of the Expanded Program for Immunisation (EPI) for the COVID-19 vaccine has not been officially announced yet.

India’s cold storage capacityNumber of doses
Government capacity 200-250 million
Private sector capacity250-300 million
TOTAL CAPACITY450-550 million
Source: Company data, Credit Suisse estimates

It’s also why COVID-19 vaccines being developed by Pfizer and Moderna won’t be feasible to distribute in the Indian market. To store a vaccine at minus 70 degrees Celsius would require a significant overall of the existing system since most of the country’s cold storage is only equipped to offer a temperature range of between two to eight degrees Celsius.

COVID-19 vaccine candidates offered by Oxford, Johnson and Johnson, and Novavax are the top contenders for distribution in India primarily because of their ability to survive in warmer temperatures.

Vaccine candidates and the temperatures they need to survive:
VaccineCold chain
Pfizer/BioNTech-70 degrees Celsius
Moderna-20 degrees Celsius
Oxford/AstraZeneca2-8 degrees
Johnson and Johnson2-8 degrees
Novavax2-8 degrees
Source: Respective companies

Opportunities for cold storage post pandemic

Cold storage is a part of the infrastructure and a subsector of real estate that consists of large refrigerated warehouses and holds the country’s entire food supply together.

“Expansions and new service launches will offer lucrative opportunities for market players over the next five years,” noted a report by MarketsandMarkets from October. It pegs India to be the fastest-growing country in the Asia Pacific when it comes to the cold chain market.

According to Manoj Pant, the regional business manager at Snowman Logistics, cold chain storage will play a pivotal role in storing food perishables after the pandemic. This expands from e-commerce companies to online pharmacies to organised meat and seafood retail.

“The hiccups experienced by the food storage and supply chain due to the pandemic are raising concerns on the food security of India. A robust cold chain infrastructure is needed to strengthen the supply and storage of perishables to suffice India’s population,” he stated.

Typical temperatures for a cold storage facility:
Temperature rangeItems permissible
Below -18 degrees CelsiusMeat and seafood
0 to 10 degrees CelsiusDairy products, fruits, medicines and meat
10 to 20 degrees CelsiusFlowers, fruits, vegetables and wine
Above 20 degrees CelsiusFlowers and wine
Source: CBRE

Property consultant CBRE agrees with Pant’s take. “Cold storage facilities play an integral role in improving the shelf life of products and are an important enabler for several industries working across fresh food production and delivery; along with healthcare and other products such as flowers and chemicals,” said Anshuman Magazine, the chairman of CBRE across India, South East Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

These are the reasons behind the lack of cold storage infrastructure in India

Limited capacity to store at the required temperatures for a vaccine is only one part of the equation. Even the existing infrastructure is not without its pitfalls. These facilities' inadequacy gets highlighted further when looking at the more humid southern states, as a report by CBRE Research pointed out in October.

The facilities themselves are managed by farmers or labour who may not necessarily be aware of the correct procedure to handle the storage of medical equipment, like vaccines. In their defense, the facilities themselves lack focus on anything else but crops coming in, especially onions, chillies, or potatoes. Even so, there are very few standards and protocols in place for managing a cold storage facility in India.

Even if India wants to ramp up the development of cold storage facilities, most of the technology that goes into building them is currently imported from outside India. This ramps up costs and leaves India dependent on other countries.

As a country, India also needs to solve the issue of power cuts plaguing the storage of crops at cold storage facilities for years. It’s now more critical when dealing with COVID-19 vaccines.

India’s Power Ministry claims that the country’s power peak deficit is around 0.8%; however, uninterrupted power is still an issue.

The Indian government’s plan so far

In order to resolve these bottlenecks and successfully distribute the COVID-19 vaccine in India, the health ministry has advised states to stop working on individual plans for distribution. Instead, they’ve been asked to create a database according to the blueprint issued by the central government.

If experts are to be believed, the expansion of cold storage is not only essential for the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine, but also in terms of the opportunities, it presents post-pandemic for a host of other sectors.

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