Santa Fe company delivers vaccines to ‘last mile’

Sandia National Laboratories chemist Eric Coker, left, looks over high-performance thermal containers developed by Bruce McCormick, president of SAVSU Technologies in Santa Fe. Courtesy Randy Montoya/Sandia National Laboratories

A couple of years ago, the head of a management company specializing in high-performance processes and materials met the founder of a nonprofit organization that supports spiritual and medical programs among the Mayan communities of Chiapas in southern Mexico. Ohki S. Forest of Canadian Mohawk descent, who visits Santa Fe periodically, was giving a talk at a conference hosted by the Bioneers, a Santa Fe nonprofit that often serves as a catalyst among social, technological and visionary entrepreneurs.

Out of the conversation that followed, Dana Barnard, CEO of Barson Corporation, and Forest of Red Wind Councils discovered they had a mutual interest in solving a widespread health problem.

A Barson company, SAVSU Technologies, which is located in Santa Fe, has been developing advanced super-efficient thermal containers, designed for a variety of sensitive medical requirements, but one in particular: SAVSU stands for “State of the Art Vaccine Storage Unit,” addressing a critical need in a sprawling global supply chain.

Bruce McCormick, president and founder of SAVSU, had approached Barnard with a unique background in developing insulating nanomaterials and with an opportunity. The Program for Appropriate Technology for Health, a major international health organization, had opened a challenge to develop delivery systems that could maintain the viability of vaccines and other critical medicines under the hazards of difficult field conditions. “Bruce came in with a lot of experience and a history of working with nano materials, one of the best in the world for commercializing this kind of product,” Barnard said. “He told me he thought he could solve this problem.”

As it turned out, McCormick won the challenge with the NanoQ container, a device that can store medicine for up to a month by replacing the ice about once a week.

International health programs have grown rapidly in recent decades and have had a transformational effect on the health of remote populations. A huge public/private institution, the Global Alliance for Vaccination, which began in 2000, has invested billions of dollars to underwrite and sustain a massive worldwide immunization campaign. Some 200 countries around the globe signed on to a Vaccine Action Plan for what is known as the Decade of Vaccine, with a goal of making vaccines available to everyone by 2020 and eradicating polio. More than 465 million people have been vaccinated in the Americas since 2003, when the Pan American Health Organization began its Vaccination Week for the Americas.

New developments and greater availability of vaccines and other medical products have been accompanied by a new set of complications in logistics and storage. A factoid in the most recent issue of the World Health Organization’s Immunization News, for example, notes that the Dominican Republic, in order to supply just half its vaccination posts, had purchased 500 dual refrigerators (both gas and electric), 1,100 thermometers, 1,500 thermoses, 8,000 ice packs and 70 coolers, among other medical devices.

In many remote areas of the world, such as the tropical jungles and inaccessible mountain villages of Chiapas, energy distribution is scarce or erratic, and refrigeration, if available, is often unreliable. Health programs are very dependent on long-distance, “last-mile” delivery of needed supplies. Medical facilities where Red Wind provides assistance regularly face unpredictable outages that can damage temperature-sensitive biological materials. After hearing about the work of Forest in Chiapas, the managers of SAVSU decided to donate five of their containers to Red Wind, one for each of the areas served by the program.

The result has been positive, according to reports from the field. In June 2012, Forest wrote that thousands of children had been vaccinated, and in January, a message from Red Wind added that the immunization program continues without a hitch.

The Chiapas experience has proven to be a real-world test, demonstrating the durability and usability of the NanoQ in a difficult environment with minimal instructions and training.

“What I love most about the Chiapas story is how it illustrates the enormous impact that this small investment can have on tens of thousands of kids,” Barnard said, noting that related trials were taking place in Vietnam and, under World Health Organization supervision, in the West African country of Benin. SAVSU’s next generation container, under development with the assistance of Sandia National Laboratories, will be able to use solar power to make its own ice.

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