The COVID-19 disease continues to claim a substantial number of lives, and cause steep economic declines in many parts of the globe. It has spread at an alarming speed, and has infected millions, which has caused countries to impose tight restrictions in attempts to mitigate its effects. The gravity of the situation calls for immediate action to reduce the pandemic’s economic and health repercussions and organize plans for long-term recovery.
A deep global recession is expected by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) because of the pandemic, with economies predicted to shrink by 4.4%. The early months of the pandemic led to the closure of businesses and industries worldwide. Although most economies have reopened, IMF’s Chief Economist Gita Gopinath said that the instability of the political landscape and the possible re-emergence of the virus suggest that the recovery of the global economy will be uneven and slow well into 2021.
To hasten economic recovery and end the pandemic, Gopinath called for improved international cooperation in terms of mass-producing approved vaccines and treatments, and making them accessible throughout all parts of the globe.
Leading experts worldwide are currently in the strenuous process of continuous clinical trials to develop vaccines that will combat the disease. Developing a vaccine, however, would not be the end solution, but rather the first step. In order to completely end the pandemic, vaccines need to be properly distributed to every part of the globe. The transportation of vaccines is delicate, however, and the refrigerators carrying these vaccines need to maintain a temperature between 2°C and 8°C (36°F and 46°F) consistently throughout the pharmaceutical cold chain when not in freezer storage. A minor mishandling can cause grave repercussions that can render thousands of vaccines obsolete, which is why sensors and accurate cold chain tracking play an essential role in stopping the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 Vaccine Production
The complex and biological nature of vaccines causes quality control measures to take up a sizable percentage of the entire manufacturing process. International standardization is required for the successful production of vaccines, ensuring that they comply with Good Manufacturing Practices standards (GMP).
Due to the urgency and gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple efforts are underway in the hopes of fast-tracking the process to deliver a high-quality vaccine in record time — with over 150 vaccines currently in development worldwide. To bolster the developments, several efforts have been launched such as the Operation Warp Speed initiative of the U.S. government, which pledged $10 billion in the hopes of delivering 300 million safe and effective doses of vaccine by January 2021. Some vaccine developers are currently running simultaneous trial phases in an attempt to expedite the process.
Once a vaccine is approved, it will then face the challenge of scaling up production and organizing the cold chain for its mass distribution globally. A disorganized cold chain would render vaccine shipments ineffective, therefore pushing back timelines and prolonging the pandemic.
Temperature Excursion and Vaccines
Vaccines need to be kept at a specific temperature range. When in refrigerator storage, all inactivated vaccines should be kept in between 2°C and 8°C (36°F and 46°F), with a preferred average temperature of 5°C (40°F). Being kept too warm or too cool could make a vaccine reduce its effectiveness. Improper shipping and mishandling degrade the integrity of a quarter of shipped vaccines by the time they reach the point of demand, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Biopharmaceutical products such as plasma also have a tendency to be damaged during transportation along the cold chain, due to their sensitive nature.
Around $35 billion is lost yearly in the biopharma industry during the transport of vaccines, including squandered logistics, replacement cost, and lost product cost. Due to the massive billion dosage requirement for the vaccines, even a 20% or lower vaccine loss due to problems in the cold chain could spell trouble.
The existence of monitoring sensors and technology-enabled tracking, cloud storage, and blockchain allow visibility and transparency regarding real-time temperature changes. With this technology, cold chain staff are able to take proactive steps to avoid the destruction of the vaccines.
The usage of IoT sensors for cold chain logistics allows for temperature monitoring and shipment tracking. The sensors pave the way for streamlining the process due to accessible data that allows businesses to make proactive decisions based on the current situation and real-time monitoring. Stakeholders are made aware of the weak links, which then allows them to mobilize the staff to take the necessary actions to maintain the efficiency of the supply chain.
For steady data dispatch, Cloudleaf uses Bluetooth technology. It allows for the mapping of the product’s passage history in real-time. These sensors are able to decipher serial or lot numbers, light levels, humidity, and temperature.
Temperature regulation is the most important factor in successful cold chain transportation. Using sensors on the transport vehicles allows the cold chain staff to have control over the temperature management and monitoring process. The temperature of cold storage facilities is automatically adjusted by IoT-enabled actuators to match the optimum level, in case any deviation arises. Additionally, IoT solutions reduce the need for human intervention, which allows businesses to allocate manpower for other immediate tasks.
The sensors can save information through cell memory, in case wireless communication and cloud upload are not readily available. Once the product reaches the healthcare recipient, they would be able to review the product history and check whether the vaccines were not in the proper temperature range sometime during the transport.
Cloudleaf is also integrating artificial intelligence to predict irregularities, confirm transit backups and estimated arrival times. This is done by combining the individual tracking data with external contextual data such as transportation updates and weather changes.
The data gathered by IoT devices are extracted in the form of automated reports that allow for healthcare workers and cold chain staff to analyze the data by pinpointing issues. Solutions are then formulated through the use of the data, to avoid comprising the integrity of the vaccines.
Through scannable barcodes made possible by IoT Technology, stakeholders are also able to monitor either individual vials or an entire tray. Individual tags mimic a batch’s history if they are processed in the same environment, so there would be no inconsistencies in the reflected data.
IoT also allows for 24/7 monitoring of the shipment. Through this, any delays are properly documented, and necessary steps could be taken to ensure that the timeline is met, to avoid spoilage in the cargo.
Plasma and temperature tracking
The antibodies from recovered COVID-19 patients extracted from Convalescent plasma are being used in research for possible treatment of the illness. Plasma is a key component in finding a vaccine; therefore it is critical that it is handled properly, given its temperature sensitivity.
The donated plasmas are kept in freezers and sent in temperature-regulated vehicles to research facilities where the specific components essential in the study are extracted. Leaving a plasma on the counter for more than 90 minutes can render it obsolete, so it is essential that temperature is continuously monitored.
Sensors detect the temperature and location. They also aid in determining how long the material has been outside of preservation, to avoid spoilage and wastage.
According to Mahesh Veerina, CEO of Cloudleaf, plasma degradation has effectively been reduced by companies observing the plasma through the cold chain using sensors.
In order to completely end the pandemic, billions of people should have access to the vaccines. The mass distribution of vaccines will cause a huge strain on the cold chain if not prepared adequately. Vaccines are highly time and temperature-sensitive and temperature excursion can render them ineffective.
Currently, the cold chain is plagued with issues such as decreased productivity and expensive operational costs. The use of high quality and advanced IoT sensors can help combat these issues. IoT sensors also allow for increased visibility in the cold chain. Through this visibility, stakeholders are able to take necessary steps and decisions based on the data supplied. Additionally, the use of IoT will reduce operational costs through minimized human intervention, reduce wastage in vaccines through continuous monitoring, ultimately increasing efficiency.
The main challenge faced by IoT in cold chain logistics is their high reliance on stable internet connectivity to function. New advanced technologies are emerging that allow for data to be stored in a cell in case of limited internet connectivity.