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Advanced logistics technology is critical to staying ahead of new COVID-19 variants

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Advanced logistics and tracking technology has become vital in helping overcome difficulties such as supply chain gaps.

After a year of lockdowns, there is hope at last. Millions of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered worldwide, and the global rollout continues to accelerate. This is good news, as there have been positive signs of impact in countries where uptake has been highest.  For example, one study found the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine rollout in Israel has helped reduced cases by 94 per cent.

However, the pandemic is far from over. Several new virus variants have emerged across multiple continents over the last six months, with some appearing to be more transmissible or resistant to early vaccine formulations. Despite severe travel restrictions and quarantines, the B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant that first emerged in the UK in late 2020 became the most dominant strain in the United States by April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently confirmed.

And scientists have said there is greater potential for dangerous new strains to appear the longer we allow COVID-19 to spread. That means accelerating the global vaccine rollout with extreme efficiency which is more essential than ever.

Logistics challenges such as supply chain gaps, vaccine output variability and a lack of transparency from fragmented healthcare and administrative bodies have delayed and disrupted vaccine drives in both developing nations and the wealthiest European countries. Consequently, advanced logistics and tracking technology has become vital in helping to overcome these difficulties.

If we can digitise every step of the vaccine distribution and administration processes, it becomes easier to make critical supply chain links. This, in turn, helps to improve coordination among stakeholders – many of whom may have never worked together before this effort. Eliminating data black holes with digital technologies also helps to increase efficiency, speed, and accountability. These include real-time track and trace technology; smart, handheld mobile computers and tablets; highly accurate barcode scanners; temperature-monitoring sensors, and next-generation analytics. Properly integrated, these can help every company and individual involved in the distribution and administration of COVID-19 vaccines confidently and accurately execute key actions.

Supply chain transparency is key

Every step in the vaccine distribution process – and each handoff between suppliers, distributors, logistics providers and administration site staff – increases the risk of vaccine damage, delay or even loss. But with the right internet of things (IoT) technology in place to maintain first-to-last-mile supply chain visibility, many of these issues can be mitigated.

For example, affixing wireless track and trace devices such as RFID tags and electronic data loggers to the pallets and packaging used to ship vaccines can enable both location and temperature data, respectively, to be collected and shared among those charged with logistics planning and reporting. Depending on the type of technology used, the data may be aggregated and distributed via the cloud in easy-to-understand graphs. In other instances, the data might be available for download onto mobile apps via Bluetooth enabled devices upon arrival at a destination. Either way, location technology is key to achieving:

  • Fast confirmation of shipment status at every hand-off point.
  • Enhanced teamwork across multiple logistics and healthcare providers.
  • Better identification and resolution of bottlenecks impacting vaccine distribution and administration.
  • Confidence in the performance of the cold chain. 

However, logistics monitoring – and vaccine temperature monitoring – doesn’t stop once vaccines arrive at their final destinations.

Combining technology and data to streamline point of care

We’re familiar with the “last mile” concept in logistics. But when it comes to achieving an efficient vaccine rollout, it’s critical to recognise that this extends beyond the doorway threshold and all the way to the vaccination station, which could be inside a grocery store or individual’s vehicle in a parking lot. Therefore, healthcare providers and others hosting vaccination clinics must have the same visibility into distribution operations as traditional supply chain logistics managers. Furthermore, they need technology tools that allow them to securely collect, store and share patient records (i.e., vaccine credentials), daily vaccination figures, potential side effects of various vaccines, fluctuating supply levels (to include inventory use/waste), and even storage temperature once the vaccines have been delivered.

That’s a daunting challenge when point of care facilities in national vaccination drives can range from the largest hospitals and sports stadiums to local pharmacies, schools and places of worship. Not all of these sites traditionally have the technology resources needed for real time data collection – and not all are digitally connected to government and public health agency databases (yet).

How do we link them all to establish a baseline system of high-quality data accessible across such diverse administration facilities?

In a perfect world, every site would have mobile computers, tablets and wireless printers built for healthcare or enterprise use. Radio frequency identification (RFID)-enabled mobile handhelds can quickly capture data about vaccine inventory and other medical supplies (i.e., needles and personal protective equipment) that have been properly tagged. Barcode scanning devices can help staff retrieve a patient’s data to confirm identity, synchronise records and even read data on a vaccine credential to confirm first dose information before a second dose is administered. The less time spent on manually completing paperwork, the more time staff can commit to other high-value tasks that are key to increasing vaccination appointment volume. Also, automating data capture like this reduces the risk of data input errors and misinformed patient care actions.

Of course, the digital capture and distribution of information captured by electronic data loggers located in freezers and refrigerators also makes it easy for facility staff to monitor and verify that the proper temperature is being maintained for vaccines on hand without having to physically check the temperature on a regular cadence. If an excursion occurs, they will be able to quickly investigate and take appropriate actions to mitigate further inventory losses. If doses do have to be disposed of, patients can be notified before they arrive for their appointments and rescheduled accordingly.

Cutting-edge artificial intelligence (AI)-based prescriptive analytics solutions can also be deployed with workforce management applications to quickly forecast first-dose demand, inform second-dose appointment planning, and help define both supplies and labour requirements as vaccine availability and appointment volume fluctuate.

The takeaway

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is the biggest logistics challenge of our generation, but digital solutions exist that will help us succeed. Used together, real time track and trace technology, enterprise-grade mobile computers, and cloud-based prescriptive analytics software can optimise vaccine distribution and administration so that we can, in turn, execute an effective global campaign that will curb this pandemic.

Daniel Dombach, EMEA Director for Industry Solutions, Zebra Technologies.jpg

Daniel Dombach

This article appears in the latest issue of Omnia Health Magazine. Read the full issue online today.  

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