“In theory, there is no difference between practice and theory. In practice, there is.”Yogi Berra
There has been a lot of media coverage lately about a vaccine to resolve the COVID-19 virus. For economies to recover and life to return to whatever the next normal will be, a vaccine is essential. So many people, businesses, communities, and even countries, are all hanging by a thread urgently awaiting this vaccine.
Politics and conspiracy theories aside, the logistical undertaking to distribute this vaccine will be one of the largest non-wartime endeavours that mankind has ever attempted. But how can it all be mobilized?
Now that various drug research and development companies have vaccine solutions, the next issue is the vast complications to be addressed by the distribution of these vaccines. Only now are these issues coming to light.
Some versions of the vaccine must be temperature controlled at -20° C, or -40°C, or far colder refrigeration. How can this be achieved?
There can be some significant side-effects caused by the vaccine, at least that what is being forecast from these injections and these side-effects must be tracked too. Will the side-effects be as bad as the coronavirus itself?
Who gets the vaccine first, second, and third, is all being considered. Some people, like younger children may not be vaccinated at all.
This all makes me ponder what role advanced technology will have in this vaccine logistics distribution?
Artificial intelligence can be used to plan and schedule the distribution. AI can identify the most vulnerable and set the distribution queue in place.
Internet of Things can be used to connect the supply chain end to end and track the routes, timing, and parameters of these shipments.
Blockchain can record the transactions and maintain the data for the sequence of events to get the vaccine from the manufacturers to the people. Who handled the vaccine, when they touched it, how it was moved, the technical parameters and implications for the transportation, and the end to end pathway can be recorded.
Cloud computing is likely the only way to secure sufficient compute, storage, and analytical / AI resources to process all of this data.
Edge computing will be essential to provide immediate situational awareness and trigger holds on damaged or contaminated vaccines.
IoT sensors will measure for shipping temperature, impacts, tipping angles, agitation, and other external affects that can adversely change the vaccine before the injections are made.
Big data will be needed to shift through the logistical and patient data to record and document the vaccine journey and to track who received it and how they responded afterwards.
Money: To compound matters, who will pay for these vaccines? Who pays for the vaccines’ logistical distribution? Will it be governments? Health and benefits insurance providers? Or, the person being injected? Maybe it will be a combination of the above?
What about in the Third World where they cannot afford to pay for the vaccine or its shipment? Will aid agencies and foreign governments step in to help and become a funding source? The money chain is complex.
These complicated Third World issues require creating a different type of supply chain, everything from transportation, cold storage to preserve the vaccine, getting permits from governments, and directing it to local health care workers from Africa to the Arctic.
What if one major manufacturer gets approval in the United States but has not yet gotten approval in Brazil, that by itself changes the way that the entire rollout works.
Some vaccines have stringent guidelines. One being developed by Pfizer and BioNTech must be stored around minus-100 degrees Fahrenheit. Larry St. Onge, the president of life sciences and health care for DHL globally says, “that creates a dilemma in some parts of the world.”
St. Onge continues, “Particularly if you look at the Middle East and Africa and, you know, Latin America and parts of Asia, there is a lack of infrastructure. You know, how long can it be on the tarmac before you start to escalate to the airline to make sure it’s being moved into an environment where it’s in a more controlled temperature?“
Moving the vaccines around the world will take hundreds of airplanes. Logistics companies like DHL have their own fleets. But Matthew Leonard with the trade publication Supply Chain Dive says “they will have to rely on space in commercial passenger aircraft as well. But a lot of planes have been grounded because of the pandemic.“
About half of the global air freight market travels on the belly of passenger planes. So with those out of the market, it is going to be hard to find space on the remaining air freight capacity for these vaccines to move.
Some vaccines could be shipped by sea, which is slower and cheaper. But at the moment, the technology to ship the ultra-cold vaccines by sea on a large scale does not exist.
There is not enough joint planning or an overarching authority to help address the complicated distribution of vaccines. Can technology be used to share data and permit collaboration? There is no doubt that it can, but how will it all be orchestrated as a global machine instead of hundreds of disparate and dysfunctional machines operating oblivious to each other. This stand alone approach cannot work on a global scale. We must have harmonization for the supply chain if we ever hope to get ahead of the coronavirus.
There are many different stakeholders who are doing it in parts and pieces, but certainly not one kind of ringmaster, for lack of a better word. And that is just because the role does not exist – YET!
We need technology, but we also need agreement and coordination amongst people. We need leadership. We need a leader. Who will step up to remediate this disjointed world of ours. Whoever it is, there is undoubtedly a Nobel Prize waiting for them if they succeed in snapping the ringmaster’s whip to coherce the proverbial big cats back into the centre ring.
Northham, J. (2020). Drugmakers Discuss Logistics Of Distributing Coronavirus Vaccine Worldwide. National Public Radio. Retrieved on November 28, 2020 from https://www.npr.org/2020/11/20/937201071/drugmakers-discuss-logistics-of-distributing-coronavirus-vaccine-worldwide
About the Author:
Michael Martin is the Vice President of Technology with Metercor Inc., a Smart Meter, IoT, and Smart City systems integrator based in Canada. He has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for applications that use broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies. He is a business and technology consultant. He was senior executive consultant for 15 years with IBM, where he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX). Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology. He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario. For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 20 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.