On 2nd December 2020, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine was approved for use in the UK. Just 6 days later the first dose was given as part of the UK’s mass vaccination programme, giving millions of people hope that an end to the pandemic may be in sight. This was all only 7 months after clinical trials for the vaccine began, which over 43,000 people volunteered to be part of! Now, another 7 months on, and over 4 billion doses of different COVID-19 vaccinations have been given to people all over the world, saving countless lives and helping many of us transition to a life with more freedom after months of lockdowns and restrictions. However, many people are concerned about the sustainability of a global vaccination programme: immense levels of medical waste are being generated every day, the trucks and aeroplanes delivering vaccines use up fuel and release pollution, and the huge freezers needed to keep the vaccines cold can also have a highly damaging environmental impact. Undoubtedly, the benefits of global vaccination against COVID-19 outweigh these concerns, but there are many things that can be done to ensure a more sustainable vaccine roll-out, reducing the impact on the planet and improving access to the vaccine for many people.
The main active ingredient of the vaccine itself is messenger RNA. This is a short piece of genetic material that carries instructions for making the spike proteins which the virus uses to enter our cells. Our body will use these instructions to make the spike proteins which our immune system will then produce antibodies against, our body is then prepared to react very quickly and effectively if it ever does encounter the real coronavirus. The messenger RNA is synthetically made and the production process is fast and simple, therefore it can be scaled up relatively easily to help meet demand.
The vaccines are contained in a glass vial with a rubber stopper and a plastic cap with aluminum seal. A plastic syringe and a stainless steel needle are then used to administer the vaccine. Unfortunately, most of this will end up in landfill, 4 billion doses of vaccine have already been given worldwide - that means a lot of waste! The plastic syringes and glass vials could be recycled if they were sorted properly, but many countries either don’t have the facilities for this or prefer to incinerate their medical waste. There are some waste disposal companies trying to put in place innovative solutions to this problem but they don’t currently work at a scale large enough to effectively increase the sustainability of the vaccine roll-out. One potential solution, which is unfortunately not going to be ready for some time yet, is the use of patches to administer vaccines. These patches are very small and have 100 dissolving micro-needles. They significantly reduce the waste generated from vaccination and will make it easier for vaccines to be administered in rural locations, especially where cold storage is unavailable.
Pfizer have taken responsibility for the disposal of their innovative thermal shipping containers. Once the vaccination centre has either transferred their vials to storage or used them up directly from the container, they can seal up the box and send it, and most of the storage materials provided, back to Pfizer as part of their “commitment to reusable resources”. However, I was unable to find out exactly how Pfizer reuse or recycle these containers, a bit more transparency around this would be more reassuring.
The speed and simplicity at which the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is manufactured should be an advantage for it’s sustainability, a more efficient production method usually means less energy consumption and emissions, however, Pfizer need to be more transparent with this information. The significant levels of pollution and emissions generated by the pharmaceutical industry has managed to go almost unnoticed until now. A 2019 study has suggested that the global pharmaceutical industry is more polluting than the entire automotive industry! The significance of this issue has been addressed by several of the biggest pharmaceutical companies but I believe that many of their sustainability goals are not ambitious enough considering the size and urgency of the problem. Pfizer have been implementing many greenhouse gas reduction projects since 2000, and describe several ongoing projects on their website. Although Pfizer have put a lot of money into sustainability projects and are trying to tackle many issues connected to the pharmaceutical industry, such as drugs polluting the environment, and the prevalence of non-recyclable packaging, I think they could make data showing their progress more accessible and up-to-date.
One of the key issues with the sustainability of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in particular is the need for it to be stored in freezers at -70 degrees Celsius. This is one of the major barriers to people accessing the vaccine in lower income countries and rural places where these specialist freezers, and sometimes refrigerators of any kind, are very rare. The need for this cold-chain transportation makes the logistics of a global vaccine roll-out incredibly complex! The freezers use hydrofluorocarbon gases (HFCs) to get the temperature to -70 degrees, and HFCs have a global warming effect thousands of times worse than carbon dioxide! Although the risk of HFC leakage is supposedly very small if the freezers are sealed correctly, this may not be the case when they are eventually disposed of. The re-purposing of existing freezers, (e.g. ones used in food storage) or the use of alternative natural refrigerants when making new freezers, are more sustainable solutions. Pfizer’s current solution involves their specially designed thermal shipping containers. They use dry ice to keep the vaccines cold enough during transport and can be used as temporary storage for up to 35 days. However, in order to keep the shipping container cold enough for the full 35 days the dry ice needs to be regularly replenished and this would also be impossible in many places around the world. Their “just in time” delivery system also attempts to overcome this issue, as they ship out smaller batches to vaccine centres just at the times they are required in order to avoid the need for storage. But this method will mean more CO2 emissions from the planes and trucks used for all the extra journeys required due to the lack of storage. Overall the need for the Pfizer vaccine to be stored at such low temperatures makes it unsustainable and reduces vaccine accessibility.
Pfizer inc. is a large American pharmaceutical corporation that operates in 180 countries worldwide with over 96,000 employees. Charles Pfizer and Charles F. Erhart founded the company in 1849, they were both from Germany but immigrated to the US in 1848. Pfizer is now a multi-billion dollar company that produces vaccines and medicines for a wide range of diseases, it one of the few giant pharma companies that dominate the global industry. Pfizer, alongside most other giant pharma companies, has been involved in many serious controversies, illegal, racist and unethical behaviour, resulting in billions of dollars being paid in fines and many patient’s lives being lost. This unethical behaviour is still happening now as Pfizer will be making billions of dollars in profit from the sales of the COVID-19 vaccine and are putting this profit above helping people living in low-income countries access the vaccine quickly and cheaply.
One area Pfizer have recently improved in is increasing racial diversity within their clinical trials, this can be seen in the COVID-19 vaccine clinical trial data. Although people of colour are still slightly underrepresented when compared to population sizes in the US (so Pfizer still need to do better), the racial diversity of the trial group is still significantly improved compared to past clinical trials. This was vitally important for the testing of the COVID-19 vaccine as people of colour have been disproportionately effected by the pandemic. It is also is important for Pfizer to hold themselves accountable for their historic abuse and mistreatment of people of colour in their clinical trials and to now do better for those communities.
Pfizer website: https://www.pfizer.com/
Pfizer sustainability: https://cdn.pfizer.com/pfizercom/SustainabilityBondFramework.pdf
Pfizer wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pfizer
Unethical behaviour: https://corporatewatch.org/pfizer-six-scandals-to-remember/
Racial diversity in trials: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/covid19-vaccines-and-people-of-color
Vaccine sustainability: https://www.politico.eu/article/mass-coronavirus-vaccinations-environmental-impact-climate-change/
Vaccine info: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03441-8