The role of IoT in COVID-19 vaccine transportation along the cold chain

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By now, healthcare facilities are storing and administering COVID19 vaccines across the world. When it comes to those vaccines, the speed at which scientists developed them is remarkable. They made the vaccine ready in only six weeks, the fastest in history. 

It will also be wrong to believe that some miracles were behind the speedy vaccine development. The strong foundation of advanced scientific research and infrastructure investment made COVID19 vaccine development possible in record time.  

The vaccine development’s key enablers were genome sequencing, mRNA platforms, global communications networks, and administrative bodies like the International Coalition of Medicines Regulatory Authorities.

covid-19 vaccine

What is the Cold Chain?

You must have known that the COVID19 vaccine needs freezing temperatures for storage. Pfizer’s vaccine needs a storage temperature of –70 degrees C. The storage temperature of Moderna’s vaccine is –20 degrees C. If you fail to maintain the prescribed storage temperature, the vaccines will get damaged and become unfit for use.

The vaccines need to be transported across geographies while maintaining the right temperature. It is where the need for a cold chain comes into the picture. 

The cold chain is a distribution channel for the transportation of products at low temperatures. It starts at the production facility and ends at the administration point to people at healthcare facilities, with vaccine refrigerators and freezers to store them.

Cold chains are of three types, each defined by the temperature requirements. The types are–refrigerated chain (2 to 8 degrees C), frozen chain (–20 degrees ), and ultracold chain(–70 degrees C).

The Pfizer vaccine needs the ultracold chain, but the ultralow infrastructure is present only in around 25 countries across the world. 

To counter the infrastructure shortcomings, Pfizer has designed a box using dry ice to maintain the temperature of -70 degrees C in transit for ten days. These boxes bear Internet-of-Things (IoT) features to track location and temperature in real-time.

What is the Role of IoT in the Cold Chain?

vaccine transportation

IoT is all about making the functional status of assets and their locations remotely in real-time. Therefore, the implementation of IoT in the vaccine cold chain helps track temperature and identify temperature fluctuations. 

It entails the following benefits:

Globalization

With IoT, you can send information anywhere in the world if there is internet connectivity. Even in situations where there is no alarm facility, alerts can come to smartphones to notify you of temperature excursions.

Data Aggregation

With internet-based systems, it is possible to aggregate data from many vaccines shipments and storage containers. You can easily send the data to other systems to generate insights from data analytics or machine learning. For example, if there are common temperature readings before a temperature excursion occurs, you can predict such temperature fluctuations. 

Position Data

You can include a GPS sensor in the IoT system to get position data in addition to temperature data. Research shows that around 50 per cent of temperature excursions happen on airlines and in airports. With position data, you can validate whether such information is accurate. You can locate the stages along the cold chain where there is the likelihood of temperature excursions.

Highly Automated

Implementation of IoT allows automating many manual processes. For example, automation can free up your staff from notifying the vaccine coordinator about temperature excursions as IoT systems can capture the data automatically. It helps your team to focus more on patients.

Proactiveness

With IoT based systems, it is possible to predict temperature excursions. It can save the vaccines in transit from damages. Moreover, the systems can also trigger alerts from other issues that can cause temperature fluctuations. Issues, such as the freezer getting unplugged, a shipping box developing cracks, or a temperature regulator breaking, can damage the vaccine consignment. Implementation of IoT systems can help you detect such issues so that you act proactively and prevent vaccine spoilage.

The Technologies in the IoT Cold Chain

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There is no one-size-fits-all formula in IoT systems for the cold chain. The technology to be implemented depends on the specific needs of the use case. 

Pfizer recommends using GPS-enabled thermal sensors, controlled by a central tower, to monitor each vaccine shipment’s temperature and location across the route all the time. 

GPS-enabled thermal sensors also come with a Bluetooth radio, which works well with low bandwidth, short-range, low-power applications. 

The IoT enabled shipping boxes can collect location data using GPS and temperature data through thermal sensors. Subsequently, the information can flow using Bluetooth to a local gateway, using WiFi to transmit location and temperature data from multiple shipping boxes to where the data is required. 

The approach has some advantages. It reduces power consumption as Bluetooth consumes little power. Power consumption will go further down if GPS sensors are within the gateway itself.

There are disadvantages to this method. The boxes should be near a gateway. The boxes will lose the power of communication once they leave the gateway range during transmission. 

There is another possibility too. Although GPS-enabled thermal sensors do not bear Bluetooth radios, each has cellular or WiFi radios. It curtails the need for an intermediate gateway, and each box can communicate with internet connectivity.

With this approach, you can track each box during shipment—a broader spectrum of shipping possibilities, such as direct shipment, local cross-docking, and local warehousing. 

High energy consumption is one of the downsides of the approach. As GPS-enabled enabled thermal sensors consume more power, the battery life gets shorter. Also, the maintenance costs get higher, due to which a cellular connection becomes an expensive asset.

The Last Words

Cost and reliability, to some extent, have posed challenges to the widespread adoption of IoT in cold chain technology. But, the good news is that the costs are coming down. The pandemic has strengthened the need for real-time monitoring of the vaccines along the cold chain to preserve vaccines’ potency. 

Last Updated on April 12, 2021.

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