BOGOTA (Reuters) – In a warehouse near Bogota’s airport, behind a heavy cold storage door, sit boxes upon boxes of lifesaving vaccines for everything from yellow fever to polio, awaiting transport to the furthest reaches of Colombia.
The tall shelves, kept at a chill 5 degrees Celsius (41 degrees Fahrenheit), are half-empty – leaving plenty of room for an eventual COVID-19 vaccine.
Colombia surpassed 1 million infections on Saturday afternoon, becoming the eighth country globally to do so, tallying 1,007,711 confirmed infections and 30,000 deaths.
As scientists around the world race to find a coronavirus inoculation, Colombia says it is ready to distribute any vaccine which proves effective.
Its preparedness is thanks to decades of work on a free government immunization program which offers 21 vaccines to everyone in the South American nation – among the region’s most generous for vaccine provision.
“We have a really strong vaccination program that serves as a model and which will incorporate the new formula that will arrive against COVID,” Gerardo Burgos, secretary general of the health ministry, told Reuters.
The program covers not just Colombia’s own population of about 50 million people but also more than 1.7 million Venezuelan migrants and includes everything from infant shots to human papillomavirus.
The country distributes about 23 million doses per year.
Colombia has already committed $213 million to the global COVAX initiative, guaranteeing COVID-19 vaccinations for about 10 million people. People over 60, those with pre-existing conditions and healthcare workers will be immunized first.
Colombia’s cases have climbed steadily despite more than five months of a gradually loosened quarantine which has battered the economy and sent unemployment soaring.
Besides the cost of the vaccine itself, the government plans to spend up to 300 billion pesos, about $78 million, on transport, information campaigns, regional warehouse expansions and personnel to inoculate the initial 10 million recipients, Burgos said.
The Bogota warehouse can hold about 50 million vaccine doses, Burgos said, and is regularly at about 50% capacity.
But there will be challenges – some old, some new.
Reaching remote populations in Colombia’s mountains and jungles will be as difficult with a COVID vaccine as it is with other immunizations.
“It’s not easy to have to navigate rivers and then walk or have to go with animals, on horseback,” Burgos said.
Potential vaccines requiring extreme cold storage could also prove difficult, he said.
“The great novelty could be in the challenge that may be created by vaccines which demand refrigeration below -60, -70 degrees (Celsius),” Burgos said.
The country could mount refrigeration sites in major cities to guarantee access for as many people as possible, he said, and expects manufacturers to share information about transportation.
Some companies developing exceptional cold storage vaccines have said they are working to make injections last longer in transit.
Colombia typically packs vaccines into thick coolers with special ice packs which keep them at between 2 degrees and 8 degrees Celsius for up to 36 hours.
Workers were readying 9,000 doses of rotavirus vaccine, among others, to ship to the northeastern province of Cesar when Reuters visited the warehouse.
“We’ve made great efforts,” Burgos said. “Because in the end our responsibility is for all Colombians.”
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Jonathan Oatis)