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End game

How are IoT technologies keeping vaccines safe, in storage and transit, and in the process bringing the current pandemic to an end? Benjamin Brown, Client Success Manager at Sigfox, talks to New Electronics.

With billions of lives depending on COVID-19 immunisation, today’s global vaccine rollout efforts are faster than any other in history. However, this urgency has left very little time for the pharmaceutical supply chain to adapt.

According to medical experts dealing with the crisis there are a number of key operational levels and choices that need to be made to ensure a successful roll-out.

Critically these include clear information about supply and inventory; appointment scheduling and registration systems to reduce the variability of demand; ensuring prioritisation, in order to avoid wasting vaccines; and the introduction of linear distribution models, which provide greater accountability and better information flow. Keeping the vaccines in storage and successfully delivering them, in good condition, are also critical to the successful roll-out of vaccine programmes.

“Like many other vaccines, COVID-19 doses must be stored in a freezer or refrigerator to be effective, so supply chain players are required to take the necessary measures to respect the cold chain and ensure that storage conditions are maintained at the right temperature,” explains Benjamin Brown, Client Success Manager at Sigfox.

Cold chain monitoring is not a novelty and has existed for decades but, with the unprecedented scale of this pandemic and the urgency of the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines, the healthcare industry has become one of the main applications for cold-chain monitoring solutions to avoid temperature excursion.

“A temperature excursion occurs when a pharmaceutical product is exposed to temperatures outside the specified range for storage and transport, resulting in considerable product loss. This happens when cold chain storage and transport is mismanaged, and can result in high financial losses,” says Brown.

While cold chain monitoring has been addressed by telecommunications technology providers for many years, these have been with limitations that were commercially or operationally blocking in given scenarios (namely cost of and skills required for installation and operations), including vaccine distribution.

“IoT technologies address these limitations and, providers are supporting the delivery of vaccines globally,” suggests Brown.

Before 2020, losses due to temperature excursion were estimated at $35 billion, in the medical field alone. That figure is expected to rise significantly in 2021 thanks to the specific temperature requirements of the COVID-19 vaccine and the additional costs that have to be invested in temperature monitoring.

“With billions of vaccine doses needed, any loss due to transport or logistics issues will have negative social and health impacts because of resulting delays to vaccination programs. Vaccine losses will also affect health departments, hospitals and pharmacies as they will need to find additional resources to manage the disposal of unusable doses as well as the procurement, inventory management and reporting of new vaccine stock,” explains Brown.

For pharmaceutical distributors, the challenge will be far greater. “Thermostatic packaging and monitoring solutions to avoid temperature excursion are not provided by some vaccine manufacturers and so will have to be managed internally.

“The healthcare industry can rely on communication technologies to provide vaccine status updates from the manufacturing plant to citizens across the world. In terms of newer technologies, sensors relying on IoT networks can be fitted to packages or pallets to collect data throughout the supply chain and provide visibility. In some cases, they are already used to identify weak links in the supply chain – such as revealing a recurring location where temperature excursions occur,” says Brown.

On the other hand, however, solutions that only monitor trucks not the packages themselves, only enable temperature checks when the truck is loaded or unloaded. If there is a temperature excursion during transportation, it is impossible to know when it happened or what portion of the cargo was affected. Additionally, solutions that only monitor trucks are generally based on technologies which are often costly and unaffordable for developing countries.

“IoT sensors using a 0G network to collect and send data can be easily retrofitted directly onto packaging to monitor temperature status from the moment the vaccines leave the factory until they reach their destination. For pharmaceutical distributors or thermostatic packaging manufacturers, this is an opportunity to offer value-added services and quality assurance to health departments, medical unions or hospitals,” says Brown.

The benefits for developing countries

The secure distribution of vaccines is complex in developed countries, but it is an even bigger challenge for developing countries; especially in sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Asia, where temperature excursion can happen a lot faster.

“According to Toby Peters, a professor of cold economy at the University of Birmingham, ‘the problem is particularly acute in the global south,

where many rural villages don’t even have a working vaccine fridge.’ Additionally, technologies normally used for tracking and monitoring temperatures, like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, are still expensive for developing countries. Unfortunately, there may also not be local individuals who have the right skill sets to independently deploy and maintain such solutions,” Brown points out.

“IoT solutions that have been designed as plug and play can help clear the cost hurdles and skills gaps because there is a very limited need to invest in training or additional resources to implement the solution compared to its technology counterparts,” Brown adds.

“0G network IoT solutions can be used to better monitor stocks in developed, and all other, countries so that a smoother redistribution of any surplus vaccines can be undertaken, which can only support the global distribution of vaccines – bringing the world one step closer to the end of this pandemic.”

Conclusion

Unfettered global access to vaccines has become one of the most important topics for governments and global institutions, and is an essential condition to end the global COVID-19 pandemic.

By employing IoT solutions, the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry can ensure better visibility of the supply chain to support the integrity of transported vaccine stock, as well as contribute to the global distribution of vaccines – bringing the world one step closer to the end of this pandemic.

Author
New Electronics

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