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August 20, 2021

The approval for the first vaccine for COVID-19 gave us a reason to rejoice in the last month of 2020. But it also posed one of the biggest operational challenge that the human race has faced till date -- inoculating the entire world, and that too as soon as possible.

COVID-19 has been one of the deadliest viruses ever known to mankind. In the first 15 months since the outbreak, it had claimed more than 3.5 million lives and continues to claim more lives every day. Mass vaccination the world over seems to be the only solution right now.

Vaccine availability goes a long way in combatting a disease. The smallpox  vaccine was developed in 1796, but could be eradicated only in 1979. Many lives – 3 million died of small pox between 1929 and 1979 alone -- could have been saved if the vaccine was available to a larger population in the intervening 183 years. Similarly, the polio vaccine was discovered in 1955 but even 65 years later, the disease was endemic in two countries. Such delays can  be attributed to the lack of technology, improper vaccine management and inefficient logistics.

It goes without saying that we cannot afford such delays in the case of COVID-19 vaccine availability. If you are a vaccine manufacturer, or a government agency responsible for strategizing the transportation and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, ensuring maximum reach and minimal wastages must be your primary concern.

An uphill task

COVID-19 vaccines are currently being manufactured only by certain countries and ensuring accessibility at every corner of the globe is not an easy task. In March 2021, Johnson & Johnson committed to delivering 100 million vaccines shots to the U.S. within two months, but such an ambitious target still falls short of the requirements.

Optimizing vaccine production and management is one of the key priorities as it will help reduce the cost per dose and make it affordable for people from some of the poorest nations. Then comes the problem of storage.  Most of the vaccines are required to be stored and transported at very low temperatures to ensure their effectiveness and appropriate state before they are administered. For some vaccines, the dry ice in the thermal zippers must be replaced within 24 hours and again every five days. And you can only open the box one or two times a day. The vials must be transferred to refrigerated temperatures within 15 days of production and used within five days. Also, the temperature of pharmacy chain distribution carriers must be as low as -80 degree Celsius. This makes both storage and last-mile delivery of the vaccine quite challenging. And the costs can be high -- temperature mistakes in vaccine distribution have led to losses of $34 billion annually.

Smart vaccine logistics

We need a system that can ensure efficient vaccine management and logistics that addresses these challenges, and an IoT-enabled vaccine management system holds the key.

An IoT-enabled vaccine management ecosystem is powered by route-planning and predictive traffic monitoring that prioritizes the distribution based on availability, requirement and constraints. Pharmaceutical companies report a 5-20% wastage in vaccines. An IoT-enabled tracking system optimizes available resources and reduces spoilage. This helps reduce the distribution and quality control cost, thereby making it more affordable for the end user.

Cold chain tracking using IoT sensors and managing alerts with the help of artificial intelligence allows the stakeholders to have real-time visibility of the vaccine, so that  the vaccine reaches  the end user in an intact condition.

An IoT-enabled, track-and-trace system allows OTP-based, mobile-enabled proof of delivery that ensures the vaccine reaches the correct recipient and captures the exact time and place of transfer of ownership.

Built on an IoT-enabled platform and focused on providing real-time insights, TCS DigiFleetTM enables stakeholders to monitor vaccine vials, predict excursions, track delivery ETAs and delays, considering dynamic business requirements.

It is important to note that an efficient supply chain and distribution plays a vital role in ensuring the efficacy and safety of the vials, which is critical to our fight against this virus. Technology has indeed come a long way from just being a facilitator to being an integral part of our daily lives.

Selvan is the business head for TCS DigiFleetTM. An engineer by education, Selvan is a seasoned technology professional. He has played multiple roles ranging from program management to front-end sales in the automotive, heavy industry and high tech sectors. Selvan has also been a keynote speaker in several public fora including transport, logistics, supply chain and technology skill building to enable Industry 4.0.

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