This post is one of a series in the #Innovate4Health policy research initiative.
More than 1.5 million children die every year from diseases that existing vaccines could prevent. Why aren’t these children vaccinated? One big reason is that vaccines need to be kept cool until they reach patients, but that’s a really hard task in parts of the world where power is unreliable.
A new, patented “super thermos,” the Arktek Passive Vaccine Storage Device, aims to solve this global challenge. The Arktek was developed by Global Good, a collaboration between the Gates Foundation and the innovation lab of Intellectual Ventures.
The Arktek mends gaps in the “cold chain,” the refrigerated vaccine supply chain. Breaks in the cold chain occur because power is unreliable or minimal in many places. Also, many people live in places that cannot be reached by refrigerated transport. These gaps make it impossible to keep the vaccines fresh, and thus render them unusable in less than a week’s time.
In 2008, the Gates Foundation challenged Intellectual Ventures to help fix the cold chain problem. The resulting collaborative effort, spearheaded by Global Good, invented the Arktek Passive Vaccine Storage Device, nicknamed the “super-thermos” and the “keg of life” by Bill Gates.
The Arktek keeps vaccines at a temperature between zero and eight degrees Celsius for 30 to 60 days, depending on outside temperatures and humidity. Testing shows that it retains its cooling capacity even when outdoor temperatures rise to 43 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit). It does not rely on outside sources of electricity or other power. This is a major step forward in vaccine cooling systems, especially in much of the developing world, in which stand-alone cold storage devices struggle to keep vaccines at proper temperatures for a maximum of five days.
The “super-thermos” bears some resemblance to an ordinary coffee thermos. In 2013, the leader of the vaccine cooler development team described it as “a super-insulated, double-walled [bottle] that holds the vaccine and ice in the middle in an inner bottle. A vacuum space separates it from the outer bottle, like a large coffee thermos.” The device combines a double-walled bottle filled with vacuum insulation with multi-layer insulation technology of the type used to protect spacecraft from extreme temperatures. It holds approximately 16 pounds of ice.
Incredibly, a vaccine kept in the Arktek for weeks will be as cold as the moment it was placed inside. No powered refrigeration or additional ice is needed.
Keeping vaccines cold isn’t the only problem that the Arktek solves. Gaps in the cold chain tend to occur in places where travel is rugged and environments are challenging. Also, sophisticated medical facilities are rarely waiting at the end of a gap in the cold chain. Any solution has to be extremely tough and user-friendly.
The Arktek meets these challenges by providing near-indestructible structural integrity and high-usability in the field. To make the device sturdy, user-friendly, and easy to maintain and use, the development team at Global Good sacrificed a bit of longevity in favor of efficiency. The sixth and current prototype is therefore created for maximum efficiency, and can hold routine vaccinations for approximately 200 children or a village with a population of 6,000.
Other features help both local users and remote health officials to monitor the integrity of the vaccines. Sensors measure key information at 15 minute intervals, including the Arktek’s interior temperature, its exterior temperature, and how long it has been opened. It alerts users when temperatures begin to rise too much, and even has an LED light that comes on when a user opens the lid.
The data collected by the Arktek’s sensors is extremely accessible to all concerned. On-site users can download data logs using a simple USB stick. Meanwhile, an antenna sends data via SMS to a local telephone number every day at midnight. It provides remote personnel a summary of the day’s temperatures, location, and statistics recording when the device has been opened and for how long a period. Finally, a GPS sensor allows health officials to track the location of the devices at any given time.
During pilot testing, Global Good found the sensors to be particularly useful. For instance, if a health official was not using the device properly, Global Good was notified, and could contact the official directly and assist with training them appropriately. Armbruster observed that this kind of monitoring could eventually be relegated to local ministries of health to enable them to ensure that “they have a reliable cold chain all the way to the end point.”
Armbruster sees the Arktek as best-suited to modest villages of 5,000 to 15,000 people, in which it will be cost-effective to have a device that can be refreshed once a month by health officials. He says it may be somewhat less-suited to larger villages of 25,000 to 50,000 people, in which a large solar-powered or ice-lined refrigerator is feasible. And it may not be necessary in locales that have a reliable and consistent source of power. The cost per unit for this device currently ranges from $1,200 to $2,400, which makes it relatively affordable to health officials in the developing world.
Currently, the Arktek is in the early adoption stage of development. The WHO has “prequalified” the Arkteks under its Performance, Quality and Safety (PQS) program, which is an important seal of approval for government procurement. Global Good has collaborated with the Clinton Health Access Initiative, PATH, UNICEF, and other United Nations organizations to conduct field trials of the Arktek in Ghana, Senegal, Ethiopia, and Nigeria.
While the Arktek is still being refined for further roll-outs, it has already seen some action where it could do the most good. For example, it has stored vaccines for tuberculosis, polio, influenza, whooping cough, tetanus, hepatitis B and diphtheria. In 2014, Global Good donated 30 Arkteks to help the WHO deliver vaccines during the Ebola outbreak; and in the following year, it donated Arkteks to Nepal to assist with vaccinations after the 2015 earthquake.
Global Good is relying on property rights and commercial distribution to develop and deploy the Arktek. Aspects of the technology have been patented. Meanwhile, Global Good is currently partnering with AUCMA, a leading refrigeration manufacturer, to help commercialize Arktek and produce it at scale at an affordable price.
In 2016, Global Good received a “Patents for Humanity” award for the Arktek from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The Arktek is a vivid illustration of how patented innovation can tackle global challenges. It’s a clever, pragmatic and practical invention with a global reach and import. It reminds us that secure property rights can generate, develop and disseminate life-saving solutions to seeming intractable problems.
#Innovate4Health is a joint research project by the Center for the Protection of Intellectual Property (CPIP) and the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF). This project highlights how intellectual property-driven innovation can address global health challenges. If you have questions, comments, or a suggestion for a story we should highlight, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact Devlin Hartline at firstname.lastname@example.org.