Internet of Things can boost vaccine distribution

Sheila Zabeu -

May 02, 2021

How can IoT help distribute Covid-19 vaccines quickly and safely to billions of people? After the challenge of developing and producing immunizers, this has been the newest challenge posed by the pandemic. To get an idea, manufacturers have announced that they will have more than 12 billion doses of vaccine available for distribution by 2021. By comparison, the first wave of COVAX sent to 92 low and middle-income countries alone will double or triple UNICEF’s annual routine immunization program.

Thus, the logistical planning used until now will be put to the test because of the enormous volume that must be transported around the world, especially at a time when air cargo capacity is expected to suffer an overall drop of 20% to 25% expected in the first and second quarters of 2021, according to McKinsey. There is also the distribution of larger sizes such as boxes of syringes, needles, and personal protective equipment kits to consider. To complicate the scenario, there are risks of diversion of these products and vaccines, requiring security solutions.

In addition, the conditions under which immunizers must be transported and how they must be packaged are challenging. For example, Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines require refrigerated facilities at -70℃, while Moderna’s vaccines must be kept at -20℃.

In logistics jargon, this scheme to take temperature-sensitive products from origin to destination is known as the “cold chain”. It must include the distribution and packaging systems, whether by road, air, or sea transportation, besides the distribution centers. In the case of vaccines, they must be taken from the pharmaceutical companies’ production units to the millions of vaccination sites around the world, where they must also be properly stored.

Cold chain management is a perfect scenario for the application of IoT (Internet of Things) solutions, not only for the distribution of vaccines but also for so many other temperature-sensitive products. In many cases, checking the temperature along the cold chains is done manually, and the results are recorded in spreadsheets or in an online database. How can we ensure that these values really reflect the reality during the entire transport? What if the temperature fluctuates too much during the journey? The products may have deteriorated, and this will not be detected.

IoT sensors can help with continuous checking of temperature-sensitive products, ensuring visibility of conditions throughout the cold chain, monitoring the location and status of items — for example, temperature — in real-time, and data collection for future analysis and recommended adjustments. The data collected can be queried by authorised agents anywhere in the world. In addition, alarms can be issued, for example, in the event of abnormal temperature variations or any other condition requiring corrective action. GPS capabilities coupled with IoT devices can collect location data where the most problems occur, all in a highly automated way.

All these and other benefits added up will result in fewer losses from lost products due to improper packaging. In an era of pandemic and accelerated search for vaccines, time will not only save money but mostly lives.

Logistics is also an area that can now rely on “as a service” solutions. A recent partnership between semiconductor company Qualcomm Technologies and supply chain data solutions provider Cloudleaf has an offering called Logistics-as-a-Service (LaaS), which incorporates Qualcomm components and Cloudleaf’s digital visibility platform to ensure a complete view of complex supply chains such as cold chains, relying on IoT technologies as well as artificial intelligence, machine learning, and 5G networks.

And, contrary to the name “cold chain”, this is a very heated market, because the complexity involved in the management entails an additional cost. It is estimated that worldwide spending on cold chain logistics in the biopharma industry will total about US$ 19.1 billion in 2022, in a global pharmaceutical logistics market of US$ 94.4 billion.