Temperature-controlled supply chains — or "cold chains" — have for decades facilitated the fragile process of shipping perishable foods and medical supplies across long distances without temperature excursion. As defined by the World Health Organization, a temperature excursion occurs when a pharmaceutical product is exposed to temperatures outside the range prescribed for storage and transport.
Prior to 2020, in the medical field alone, the cost of losses linked to the breaking of the cold chain was estimated at $35 billion, according to the IQVIA Institute for Human Data Science. With the global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines starting in late 2020, that figure is expected to rise significantly in 2021, especially because of specific temperature requirements and the additional costs that will have to be invested in temperature monitoring.
With billions of vaccine doses needed, any loss due to cold chain transport or logistics issues will have a negative social and health impact because of resulting delays to vaccination programs. Vaccine losses will also affect health departments, hospitals and pharmacies, who will need to find resources to manage the disposal, as well as additional procurement, inventory management and reporting.
For pharmaceutical distributors, the challenge can be even greater, as thermostatic packaging and monitoring solutions to avoid temperature excursion aren’t provided by some vaccine manufacturers and have to be managed internally.
One way industry players meet this challenge is by using integrated communication technologies to provide visibility into vaccine status. In terms of newer technologies, sensors relying on internet of things (IoT) networks can be fitted to packages or pallets to collect data throughout the supply chain. These IoT sensors increase supply-chain visibility and, in some cases, are already used for pharmaceuticals to identify weak links along the supply chain, such as revealing a recurring location where temperature excursions occur, and pinpointing the responsible supply-chain member.
IoT systems that only monitor trucks, instead of the packages themselves, only enable temperature checks when the vehicle is loaded or unloaded with pharmaceuticals. This means that if there’s a temperature excursion during transportation, it’s 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 that are often expensive and unaffordable for developing countries.
Sensors using a 0G network — a low-cost, low-power wireless network designed to send or receive small messages between IoT devices — can be easily retrofitted directly on packaging, and continuously monitor temperature status from the moment vaccines are out of 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.
The risk of temperature excursion often increases in developing nations, especially warmer regions like sub-Saharan Africa, South America and Asia.
“The problem is particularly acute in the global south, where many rural villages don’t even have a working vaccine fridge,” says Toby Peters, a cold economy professor at the University of Birmingham. Additionally, technologies traditionally used for tracking and monitoring temperatures (for example, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and 4G/LTE) are still expensive for developing countries. And there might not be people locally who have the right skillsets to independently deploy and maintain such solutions.
IoT systems that have been designed as plug-and-play, such as those based on the 0G network, can help clear such hurdles and save costs, as there’s limited need to invest in training or additional resources to implement them compared with traditional technology counterparts.
IoT systems can also be used to better monitor stocks in developed countries, so that a smoother redistribution of any surplus vaccines to developing countries can be undertaken.
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. With IoT systems, the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry can cost-effectively ensure better visibility of the supply chain to support the integrity of the transported vaccines, as well as contribute to the global distribution of vaccines, bringing the world one step closer to the end of this pandemic.
Benjamin Brown is client success manager at Sigfox.
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