With a number of COVID-19 vaccines now either approved or nearly there, the debate has shifted to the logistical challenges of transporting vaccines across an unbroken and continuous cold chain — from the manufacturer to shipping facilities, hospitals and eventual point of use, all while minimizing spoilage. This is a particular challenge with the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which is manufactured in Belgium and needs to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit) before it’s administered.
Fortunately, advances in telematics technologies over the last decade have helped to create wider and more advanced cold-chain systems. However, due to the unique ultra-cold storage conditions required for vaccines such as that of Pfizer/BioNTech, coupled with the fact that the success of any vaccine rollout depends on delivering vaccines to every corner of the world, a number of significant challenges stand in the way of a successful global vaccine rollout.
The Cold Chain Challenge
To ensure both the efficacy and safety of vaccines, they need to be kept at a specific temperature in an unbroken and continuous state from the manufacturer through to eventual point of use. Most COVID-19 vaccines are currently being manufactured in a handful of locations, which has led to the creation of an extensive international network of transportation and storage sites to get the vaccines to wherever they’re needed.
With so many moving parts and such a long chain, there’s a lot that can go wrong. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about half of all vaccines distributed around the world each year end up void, principally because of a failure to regulate and monitor storage temperatures.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that an outbreak in one country, anywhere in the world, can quickly become a global issue. This means that the success of any vaccine rollout depends on guaranteeing the delivery of temperature-controlled vaccines to every country, and keeping spoilage to a minimum.
Fortunately, we now have the tools to tackle this challenge. By placing internet-connected devices inside vehicles and freezers that can continuously transmit data relating to storage temperature, conditions can now be monitored at nearly every stage of a vaccine’s journey. In theory, this use of the internet of things (IoT) ensures that data on real-time conditions can be provided, making sure that any COVID-19 vaccine is both viable and effective. It also helps to prevent misplacement, identifies damage, prevents accidents, ensures compliance, and tracks locations.
The Connectivity Dilemma
Consistent connectivity is critical for gaining real-time monitoring capability and exploiting the benefits that the IoT can offer. However, with such an expansive international network of transportation and storage sites required, many parts of the cold chain are likely to lack the required connectivity, particularly in more remote areas.
This is where satellite communications can make a huge difference in strengthening the global cold-chain system. Satellite’s unique capabilities to provide global coverage — especially when working with a single provider with a global network — and the redundancy it offers as a backup to cellular, ensure that the supply chain is never broken through a failure in its connectivity backbone. With satellite, connectivity can follow the asset, through each stage of its lifecycle, rather than relying on switching between cellular networks in different countries and regions.
Crucially, this ubiquitous connectivity not only ensures that data on products can be extracted wherever they are in storage or transit, but also provides the tools needed to track sprawling global cold chains. In the context of COVID-19 and the use of IoT, real-time monitoring capability means that vaccine quality and traceability can be guaranteed no matter where on the planet the vaccine needs to be transported. The technology also helps manage security risks and ensure rapid mitigation of any problems in the system.
Other Hurdles Remain
It’s worth finishing on the point that, although deploying IoT-enabled technologies underpinned by satellite communications offer a better way to monitor and secure global cold chains, other challenges will still need to be overcome to defeat COVID-19.
Additional key resources that are required to combat the virus have become stretched as a result of the ongoing pandemic, such as personal protective equipment (PPE). The demand has led to a black market with thieves stealing crucial supplies to sell for profit. The same connectivity advantages that support a vaccine supply chain, also apply here: with ubiquitous connectivity comes traceability and security.
Distributing supplies won’t be an easy task, and it will require a global effort to manage the logistics of delivering millions of doses of vaccine to every corner of the world. What’s clear, however, is that IoT and satellite connectivity will play an important role in ensuring that vaccines get to where they need to go via land, sea and air.
Steven Tompkins is director of sector development at Inmarsat.
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