Sarawak’s ‘Last Frontier’ To Dry Run Pfizer Vaccine

The government will conduct a dry run on January 29 to transport saline-filled bottles at minus 70 degrees Celsius from a Covid-19 vaccine storage centre in Sarawak to a vaccination site in Belaga district, Kapit, Sarawak.

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 28 — The government plans to trial run transporting Pfizer’s ultra-cold Covid-19 vaccine to Belaga tomorrow, a remote village in Sarawak located five hours by road from Bintulu.

Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said the dry run will transport saline-filled bottles at an ultra-cold temperature of minus 70 degrees Celsius from a Covid-19 vaccine storage centre in Sarawak, the country’s largest state, to a vaccination site in the rural Belaga district, Kapit division.

He added that piecemeal dry runs and training on the storage and administration of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine are currently ongoing, including how to check the log for ultra-low temperature freezers or how to thaw the shots.

“We’re actually doing a dry run on the 29th to show how the Pfizer vaccine is transported from one of the 55 storage sites to Belaga in Sarawak. We chose Belaga in Sarawak to show that this ultra-cold chain is not really an issue if you plan properly because it can last for a few days at normal fridge temperature,” Khairy told CodeBlue in an exclusive interview Monday.

“If you plan it out well, those people in Belaga are already waiting, they can take it from one of 55 [storage] centres — I don’t know where it is, Kuching or wherever — all the way to Belaga, and administer it to the people who need it there. Just in time, and just the right number of people. That’s why we chose the dry run not to be in an urban hospital; that’s going to be easy.”

The Pfizer vaccine must be kept in ultra-low temperature freezers at minus 70 degrees Celsius, for a maximum of six months. But the vaccine can be stored for five days at normal fridge temperature of two to eight degrees Celsius.

Khairy said the government will also utilise Pfizer’s thermal shippers that can double up as temporary storage units, by refilling with dry ice every five days, for up to 30 days of storage.

When questioned why Belaga was chosen to trial run the Pfizer shot — since Khairy previously announced that the ultra-cold vaccine would be deployed to urban areas — the minister clarified that 40 per cent of the population, or 12.5 million people, would be covered by the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Malaysia is ordering an additional 12.2 million doses from Pfizer, on top of 12.8 million doses scheduled for delivery this year, totalling 25 million doses.

“Maybe not the ultra interior areas, but we’ll definitely take it to some suburban and some rural areas. That’s why we want to do this dry run. The point is, if you can do it with the Pfizer vaccine, you can definitely do it with the AstraZeneca vaccine,” said Khairy.

The AstraZeneca-Oxford University shot can be stored at normal fridge temperature.

Khairy said Ministry of Health (MOH) staff would be involved in the Belaga dry run, while he and Health Minister Dr Adham Baba would be in the control room. US pharmaceutical company Pfizer and its distributor, whom Khairy declined to name, would also participate in the dry run.

The majority of districts in Sarawak, 29 out of 40, have recorded coronavirus infections in the past 14 days. Belaga reported two new Covid-19 cases in the past fortnight.

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