How connected IoT technology will deliver the promise of next-generation vaccines

With the medical supply chain in full swing and millions of Covid-19 vaccines being made available to an anxious and eager population, it’s easy to overlook the long-term challenge looming beneath the surface of the immediate rollout. First, we need to realize that making and adopting messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) treatments on such a massive industrial scale is the greatest medical breakthrough of our lives. However, the ongoing response to the global pandemic has uncovered serious vulnerabilities in the pharmaceutical industry’s fragmented infrastructure for cold chain storage and delivery logistics. These issues must be addressed before the next wave of mRNA drugs – likely to treat cancer, heart disease, cystic fibrosis, and more – becomes widely available.

Successfully integrating Internet-enabled devices and sensors (also known as the Internet of Things or IoT) is critical to realizing the promise of this new class of vaccines and drug treatments. Automated, wearable and digitally connected sensors offer significant next-generation benefits to stakeholders as they provide end-to-end transparency within the ecosystem of the value chain. This includes real-time monitoring of temperature fluctuations in devices during shipping and storage, multiple warning options when problems arise, and collecting data for additional analysis and recommended action.

Reducing the high amount of spoilage in drug delivery
Why has IoT enablement become so important to the healthcare industry? Unlike the more popular protein-based vaccines (such as those used to fight DTaP, polio, and most flu viruses), mRNA is a gene-based vaccine that was developed within eight months of the time scientists discovered the genetic sequence of the coronavirus had mapped. While mRNA has been studied and used against the Zika and Ebola viruses for decades, its current use in the fight against Covid-19 has revolutionized the time it takes to develop a specially tailored and targeted vaccine. It is essentially genetic material read by our living cells to produce the proteins used by the immune system. Wrapped in oily bubbles of lipid nanoparticles, mRNA vaccines are fragile. They need to be kept cold and sluggish until they are ready to begin their work in your body.

Given current industry practices, new technology investments in IoT enablement are required to take advantage of this breakthrough. Indeed, pharmaceutical suppliers organized their cold chain management response for the ultra-cold freezing and storage requirements of mRNA. However, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) prepandemic statistics for drug spoilage for all vaccine shipments reached a whopping 25 percent. Unsurprisingly, news outlets recently described snowy healthcare workers handing out Covid-19 vaccines to any available driver on the highway if their storage system fails or leftover vaccines are given away at the end of the day.

In these situations, the general public wants this vaccine. Imagine if these responders had to find a more targeted end-user, for example for a drug to fight mRNA cancer. A hospital director told me that he woke up in the middle of the night for weeks to check the temperature of the freezers in his facility. The ultra-cold storage unit had a sensor that could only alert him and protected a lifetime investment of $ 2 million. This is not an effective, robust, or scalable way to protect the fragile mRNA drugs we have today – or those that are coming in the foreseeable future.

The crucial role of the IoT in cold chain management
To combat today’s pandemic, the World Health Organization recommends partnerships between government agencies, health workers, and private industry to accelerate technical or logistical barriers to rapid and effective vaccine adoption – now or in the future. Here are a few key points to consider before choosing an IoT partner:

Open data integration: IoT technology is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. The devices and machines used for the temperature-controlled value chain of the cold chain can generate thousands of usable data points per minute. But installed components often do not speak to one another and form islands of closed systems. However, open platforms can send and receive aggregated data from different, disbursed systems in a timely manner. Make sure your IoT partner is using open data protocols to reduce costs and accelerate ROI, eliminating the need for time-consuming workarounds.

Connectivity: Without 24-hour access to the Internet, stakeholders cannot be informed in real time of warnings, verified compliance, or the status and location of physical goods such as vaccines. Traffic jams, insufficient broadband for deliveries in rural areas or frequent power outages can lead to tracking and tracing failures in the temperature-controlled logistics of the supply chain. Check if your IoT provider has an internet connection fallback plan, including 4G or LTE services, if Wi-Fi broadband is not available.

Data security: Make sure that your technology partners meet federal data security and data protection requirements. The healthcare industry is regulated by the HIPAA. Information technology providers should have ISO 27001 certification for data processing and governance, regardless of whether stakeholders are served from a public, private, or hybrid cloud environment.

Dashboard functions: After validating a digitally-enabled solution, ensure that key managers can view metrics, recommendations, and developments through a single web-based visual interface. Make sure that the system continues to be customized as business needs change or the deployment protocols evolve. IoT platforms dramatically improve government compliance, reduce (or locate) incidents of drug theft or counterfeiting, and human error with time-stamped visual updates. However, this will only work if the monitoring tools are user-friendly and easily accessible.

Use the IoT for a holistic approach Too many cold chain suppliers are still monitoring deliveries and compliance with storage regulations using paper-based documentation by individuals scanning thermometers every two hours. Such systems do not meet the requirements of the 21st century for biological medicine.

In contrast, sophisticated IoT platforms that use artificial intelligence collect and analyze vast amounts of supply chain data (far more than even the most skilled humans can humanly process) to look for patterns and provide valuable insights for improvement of the company to deliver. The benefits and savings include optimizing transportation routes, reducing disruptions in warehouses and distribution centers, providing alerts in the event of equipment failures or necessary repairs, and other actionable recommendations for inventory management and planning.

Delivering vaccines to fight Covid-19 is possibly the biggest distribution challenge the healthcare industry has dealt with since polio, measles, and whooping cough eradicated. But as the political saying goes, we should never let a major crisis spoil. The partnership of IoT technology with medical innovation will open the door to a healthy future for all.

Photo: mathisworks, Getty Images

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