IoT Aids in Complex Distribution of COVID-19 Vaccine

IoT technologies play a key role in the distribution of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, which must remain at sub-arctic temperatures to ensure efficacy. Monitoring the location and temperature will be essential as vaccines move from the manufacturer to the public.  


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Image credit: Business Insider/photo by AP/Morry Gash/Pool

The much-anticipated COVID-19 vaccine has now been authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use to prevent COVID-19 in individuals 16 & older. Pfizer and its development partner BioNTech were the first to apply for emergency authorization of its vaccine. Now the challenge in Operation Warp Speed shifts from rapid development to mass distribution.  

Pfizer’s vaccine must remain at -94 degrees Fahrenheit to remain stable. That’s well below the temperature required for most frozen vaccines, which range from -20 to -50 degrees F. Pfizer created a thermal shipping container that surrounds vaccine doses with dry ice and includes a GPS-enabled thermal sensor to continuously track location and monitor temperature.

Pfizer created its own distribution network and will use Tiberius, based on the Foundry platform developed by data-mining company Palantir Technologies. The Palantir platform is already utilized by the military and some federal agencies. Tiberius uses machine learning and artificial intelligence to collect, analyze, and present data from multiple federal agencies, including information related to nearly every aspect of the manufacture, distribution, and administration of the vaccine. That data can be overlaid on a map with demographic information to determine where and when to ship the vaccine to specific locations.


Real-Time Monitoring Reduces Loss

The vaccines will travel via planes, trains, and automobiles—and in some countries by boat or local transportation. Some will surely encounter delays at various transfer points. Advances in IoT technologies are helping to improve cold chain distribution. Companies such as Cloudleaf and Varcode use blockchain, cloud storage, and tracking and monitoring sensors to provide visibility into the supply chain.

Scannable barcodes, like those from Varcode, monitor time, temperature, and location and then upload the data to a cloud-based blockchain system. The tags track breaches cumulatively and will message the scanner in real time so the situation can be remedied. A parent tag placed on a pallet connects to the other tags inside the pallet, reducing the number of scans required but sharing the parent tag’s history.

Example of barcode for tracking COVID vaccine

Image credit: Varcode

With sensors on each unit, the vaccine can be followed from the production facility to its endpoint. With automatic notification, transporters can be notified of unexpected delays or temperature excursions, or fluctuations, and react before the vaccines are damaged.

Digital Twin for Accurate Tracking

Cloudleaf’s data tracking system creates a digital twin that follows the product as it travels. Using Bluetooth for continuous data transmission, users can track the journey in real time. In addition to tracking location, the Cloudleaf sensors monitor temperature, humidity, light, and other factors. Users can establish rules to send alerts when specific thresholds are met and include product location and other relevant information, such as temperature. More than 50 percent of all temperature excursions occur during airline and airport handling.

Dashboard showing vaccine routes

Image credit: Cloudleaf

Upon receipt, healthcare organizations can check the Cloudleaf dashboard to review the package’s history and ensure its integrity. Product manufacturers can trace the chain of custody and be notified if the viability of any vaccines is compromised.

According to the International Air Transport Association, 25 percent of vaccines are degraded when they reach their destination due to incorrect shipping, and 20 percent of temperature-sensitive products are damaged during transport due to a broken cold chain. With so many needing the vaccine, and so few (relatively) available, improving the distribution channel is critical.

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