The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us all to reimagine the way we live our lives, and the roles we play in our greater society.
Different demographics, industries, businesses and organizations have consistently stepped up to address the specific challenges they face in their communities to serve the greater good. Think about healthcare workers who have taken on the essential role of caring for those infected and battling the disease. Parents have become teachers and coaches within their homes. Manufacturers have increased production to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to those in need, and supply-chain and logistics industries have stepped up to deliver these essential products around the world.
Now, the supply-chain industry is being called on for its most important role yet: the global distribution of a vaccine. The race to find a drug that can stop the spread of COVID-19 is only beneficial if there’s a well-thought-out distribution strategy to get it to the world’s population. Pfizer claims to have a COVID-19 vaccine that’s 95% effective after concluding phase three of clinical trials. With the time we have leading up to the distribution of this vaccine rapidly shrinking to possibly just a few months, logistics experts need to ensure that their supply chains can handle the accompanying demands.
As with all of the challenges presented by the pandemic, determining a successful distribution strategy for the COVID-19 vaccine is no easy feat. This is largely due to the massive quantity and specific storage and transportation temperatures required for shipment.
COVID-19 vaccines in development, like many other pharmaceutical products, require strict environmental control. Some need only to be refrigerated. Others must stay frozen, requiring sub-arctic temperatures as low as -112 degrees F. By comparison, ice cream and steaks are shipped at -80 F. Obviously, we are capable of shipping products at this temperature, with the existence of products like subscription steak boxes and packaged ice cream. However, there is significantly more risk involved when a temperature change means the difference between an effective and ineffective vaccine, as opposed to frozen versus melted ice cream.
To prepare for vaccine distribution, and ensure successful delivery with minimal spoilage, supply-chain and logistics professionals must turn to cold-chain technology. The modern-day cold chain is powered by the internet of things, providing real-time visibility of any shipment from point of origin to point of use.
The transportation and storage of temperature- and condition-sensitive products is complex, and in many cases expensive. Pharmaceuticals have specific requirements with regard to temperature, making it critical that the cold chain is never broken. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 17% and 37% of providers expose vaccines to improper storage temperatures. Vaccines shipped to developing countries are often useless due to heat exposure. On the other end of the spectrum, according to the World Health Organization, between 75% and 100% of vaccine shipments are exposed to freezing temperatures, causing a permanent loss in potency. This results in a “Goldilocks scenario,” demanding that the vaccine be “just right” so as not to be rendered ineffectual. Administering a damaged vaccine could lead to health risks, jeopardizing consumer confidence and damaging brand reputation.
So how can we ensure that vaccines are properly transported from point A to point B? Through real-time visibility across all touch points. Shipments can now be monitored during storage, shipping, and every point in between to ensure successful transport. The best solutions for supply-chain visibility use intelligent sensors that provide constant data about a shipment’s location, temperature, and other environmental factors that could cause potential disruption to the state of the product. These sensors can even be applied to individual pallets or cartons that communicate with a telematics device installed in the container, to capture data before, during, and after transit.
With real-time visibility, logistics service providers not only have access to immediate information on the environmental status of shipments, but managers can make data-driven decisions that optimize operations, lowering cost and waste. This is especially important with regard to COVID-19 vaccine shipments, due to the massive quantities needed.
Real-time visibility means the ability to make real-time decisions. Changes in routing, for example, can be made if temperatures are in danger of exceeding compliance levels. Rather than learning of a compromised shipment at delivery, fleet managers and drivers can be alerted in real time during transit to any environmental readings outside established regulatory limits, providing them with the opportunity to take immediate action to reduce spoilage.
COVID-19 has exponentially raised the stakes for supply-chain and logistics management. What began with ensuring there was enough toilet paper and hand sanitizer to go around has quickly transformed into the successful transit of a life-saving vaccine. With real-time visibility that cold-chain technologies provide, we will be able to deliver the critical alerts, reporting, and analytics needed for shippers to use a data-driven approach and maintain cold-chain integrity that can keep the world safe.
Jeff Clark is senior vice president of product management for CalAmp.
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