Technology can help manage the supply chain for COVID-19 vaccines or treatments.

Technology can help manage the supply chain for COVID-19 vaccines or treatments.

Photo: MIL-Miguel-Pena

As the best minds in global medicine continue to make hopeful progress toward an effective treatment or vaccine for COVID-19, those of us in supply chain services and technology need to ensure we have the most effective set of solutions in place to manage and monitor those shipments. It will be critical that the movement of this life-saving material is done expeditiously, and with the least amount of waste when it comes to keeping these drugs safe along their journey. Temperature, and the lack of visibility of a pharmaceutical product in relation to its ambient temperature poses a huge risk to the efficacy of these treatments to the populous. I wrote about this on LinkedIn back in 2015.

Over $15 Billion in product losses occur every year in the Pharmaceutical industry due to temperature excursions alone. It is estimated when adding the cost of replacement and other impacts over $35B is lost each year.

When Cold Chain IQ surveyed pharmaceutical executives, it found that at least 10% of respondents recorded temperature deviations in more than 15% of their temperature-sensitive shipments. Twenty percent didn’t know whether excursions had occurred. According to World Health Organization and Parenteral Drug Association:

  • 25% of vaccines reach their destination degraded because of incorrect shipping
  • 30% of scrapped pharmaceutical can be attributed to logistics issues alone
  • 20% of temp-sensitive products are damaged during transport
Craig Montgomery

Craig Montgomery

Photo: PowerFleet

Note the word "degraded" used above. That means the vaccine is not as effective when it is administered. Imagine getting a vaccine that you believed would be 80% to 100% effective that is really only 50% effective because the product went outside the prescribed temperature ranges for a several hours during shipment. 

Recently, Bloomberg's Brendan and Riley Griffen penned an article titled "The World's Supply Chain Isn't Ready For a COVID-19 Vaccine."

In it, they say, “The industries that shepherd goods around the world on ships, planes and trucks acknowledge they aren’t ready to handle the challenges of shipping an eventual Covid-19 vaccine from drug makers to billions of people.”

What is critical to note is that the world's supply chain can tap into technologies that already exist to get ready. This can be done by deploying a crawl, walk, run strategy to ensure we ramp up the sophistication and fidelity of data flows to enhance our vision of the supply chain hardening it against the common issues like degradation and spoilage.

What’s most critical now is creating a simple, yet broad technology offering that can illuminate the black holes in our supply chain due to chains of custody; emphasis on simple, adoption and deployment must be "easy" (nothing is easy in a global supply chain).

Tracking and monitoring COVID-related drugs in the future is not different than the existing use case of tracking vaccines or other critical medicines in the supply chain today. One needs to know the status (temperature and other environmental factors that may impact the medicine like shock or humidity), the thresholds those drugs must maintain, and the location corresponding to those readings. All of this should be done from the manufacturing floor to the end customer door, a person or business that will distribute these materials.

Our best chance for achieving this vision is three-fold:

  1. Global asset tracking / monitoring devices: The optimal choice is a Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) tracking and recording "tag" that records things like temperature. These exist today, are as small as a few coins stacked together and are disposable. BLE is ideal because it can interact with a phone or tablet that is also BLE enabled, which is almost every device today. These devices can be dropped in to a box or pallet of COVID material and be associated to that material (ex: this tag is monitoring this product that has these requirements). BLE cargo or package tracking devices are unique as they are essentially a database on a chip, meaning they can be encoded with data like its current temperature, what temperature it has to stay at, and can trasmit that data throughout the supply chain and each change of custody.
  2. App for smartphones / tablets: This app can be downloaded in theory by anyone in the COVID distribution supply chain. It can passively run in the background and listen for these BLE devices. When found, they record the data, for example temperature of the product, and associate a GPS location and time stamp and what entity had custody of the product. The phone app could also write this same information to the BLE device. This allows the BLE device to be interrogated at any time along the way and tell you its status and stability ("I am expired" or "I may be unstable" because I went out of my temperature range for Y minutes or X hours).
  3. Blockchain: Setting up a proprietary, closed blockchain will be key. It is where all the logistics parties can append this critical data and it enables a centralized repository of the status (current and historical) of every shipment, shipping lane, logistics provider, etc. This also allows access for anyone in logistics who is part of the supply chain with their own BLE device and app - as long as a set of standard reporting is used for the chain. This data can then be harvested and analyzed by private and public entities to do root cause analysis and further optimize the supply chain.

What must be remembered is that the more you instrument the supply chain, the more data points you create. The more data points you create, the more fidelity you derive in the supply chain ecosystem for COVID. This in turn enables suppliers, shippers and governments to inspect, analyze, optimize and protect the distribution of COVID materials through the disparate supply chain that exists today.

Craig Montgomery is the SVP of Global Marketing for PowerFleet Inc. and a 15+ year industry veteran of industrial IoT and supply chain logistics technology.