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From clinical trials to vaccine distribution: How IoT is providing vital support in the fight against COVID-19

10 Feb 2021
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Vinod Kumar

Vodafone Business, CEO

Shortly after the COVID-19 crisis hit at the beginning of 2020, the world started looking for effective solutions to manage the crisis while scientists began working together to find ways to end the pandemic.

The genetic sequence of the virus was made available in January and, by the spring of 2020, “Phase I” of the first clinical trials using vaccines had started.

However, many challenges still lay ahead in the months to come.

Governments had to respond to the emergency, train an army of people to perform testing and be ready for the start of the vaccination programme. They also needed to secure suitable vaccine and testing sites that were safe, accessible and could manage the throughput of patients.

In parallel, the logistics industry was hit hard by COVID-19. And this happened at a time when supply chains needed to be mobilised to support the distribution of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), testing kits and, later in the year, vaccines.

And as these activities progressed, the importance of visibility within and across global supply chains, from equipment tracking to cold-chain storage, became central to ensure vital support during the emergency.

Supporting the global vaccine distribution challenge

The world cheered at the end of last year on the news the first vaccines had proven effective in fighting COVID-19. And it was only a matter of days before the regulatory bodies gave the go-ahead for mass production and the inoculation programmes.

However, experts around the world knew they still had several new challenges to deal with, especially linked to distribution.

The different vaccines had different storage needs, requiring resilient, reliable and proactive monitoring during the journey in the supply chain to ensure its effectiveness.

Some had to be kept at -70c. Others could withstand being transported at a higher temperature but still needed to be monitored in transit and during storage to make sure environmental thresholds were not exceeded.

For several years, Icelandic start-up Controlant, an emerging leader in digital supply chain monitoring technology solutions, and Vodafone Iceland, a partner of Vodafone, have been working together to make the monitoring of temperature-sensitive medicines and vaccines possible around the world.

When it came to supporting the fight against COVID-19 and providing a reliable way for vaccines to be transported and stored, they stepped up their game.

Controlant’s technology, combined with our global IoT platform, is working with manufacturers and governments to enable the safe tracking and monitoring of the precious vaccine cargo during shipment, from origin sites to their arrival at vaccination sites across the world.

Packed with the vaccines, their reusable, real-time IoT data loggers give 24/7 visibility of time, temperature, and light events that could impact vaccine performance. This data is then transmitted in real-time via our IoT platform to ensure that vaccine vials are monitored as they are distributed worldwide.

Protecting those who protect us

Vaccines are undoubtedly the game-changer in the fight against COVID-19.

However, a lot of other issues had to be addressed as well, and will continue to need attention in the coming months to ensure patient care and staff safety around the world.

For instance, in April of last year, the availability (or lack thereof) of Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for medical staff was headline news all over the world.

To help supply chain planners and policymakers with actionable information, Mezzanine, one of our subsidiaries in South Africa, expanded the capability of its Stock Visibility Solution (SVS) from medicines to also include PPE.

Their IoT platform enables health facilities to transition from paper-based stock reporting to instant digital data collection. Data is an essential aid to overall public health resilience and having access to real-time, constantly refreshed information on stock levels can make the difference, helping the better distribution of items across a country and even preventing stock-outs – that in turn can hold up essential treatment.

During the COVID-19 crisis, SVS has been deployed to 350 hospitals in South Africa and PPE tracking capability added for 3,500 facilities.

Monitoring of PPE stock levels is only one of the ways IoT can be used to support healthcare staff though.

In Spain, when the IFEMA trade ground in Madrid was turned into a healthcare hub in the spring of 2020, we provided NB-IoT dash clickers to be used as “nurse buttons”. The devices, installed in every bed in the field hospital, helped doctors and nurses see, on the go, who needed immediate assistance, enhancing safety for patience and efficiency for staff. 500 buttons were deployed in the first 48 hours and 1,600 have been deployed in total.

Remote care

In Greece, as the pandemic hit the country, Innovus, another of our global subsidiaries, expanded their Telemedicine Programme capabilities and launched a Remote Healthcare solution, which allows data exchange and medical consultation between GPs and specialists remotely.

The Innovus Telemedicine Programme was launched 14 years ago by the Vodafone Foundation to provide free, preventive, health services to people living in 100 remote areas of continental Greece and islands. It allows medical professionals to perform exams like oximetry or spirometry without having to travel anywhere.

This became a life-line during the pandemic, particularly for COVID screening.

And in Portugal, our team developed a solution called [email protected] for the Garcia de Orta hospitals in Almada and at the Santa Maria Hospital in Lisbon. When patients are considered well enough to be discharged, they are given a telemedicine support kit so that vital signs can be monitored remotely and their safety ensured, without the need for them to stay in hospital.

Digital trials

Whilst the focus is on the vaccine, the monumental task linked to testing and monitoring the clinical trials cannot be underestimated. And again, here, is where technology has played a major role to digitalise the process.

Providing instant, diarised, and detailed data on symptoms, reaction and wellness using a mobile platform is vital; it removes the need to transcribe paper records, reducing mistakes and speeding-up the decision and development process. Connected devices can also seamlessly record and flag anomalies to medical staff, thus avoiding needless risks to participants.

Another aspect to consider is the requirement to keep the participants’ data secure and the need for these digital tools to be deployed globally, so they can report their data consistently.

We are proud to work with several companies doing clinical research around the world, offering them access to our global IoT platform to enhance compliance, ensure safety and protect the privacy of the patients.

Test to stop

And what about testing?

It’s not just about taking samples from people. It’s also about making sure they get their test results quickly, so they can take precautions and avoid spreading a highly infectious virus whilst waiting for the outcome.

This is important both for individuals, so they can self-isolate properly, and in hospital settings, where doctors are having to create different areas for patients according to them being positive or negative to coronavirus.

In South Africa, Mezzanine ramped-up the already existing eLABS solution, normally used for HIV tests, moving to a multi-testing model in July 2020 to track samples for COVID-19.

Facility healthcare workers use eLABS to submit samples for pick-up and processing, couriers use it to track logistics and sample temperature in transit, and laboratories use it to transmit electronic results directly to healthcare workers – saving days of delay associated with existing paper-based system.

Information is linked to individual samples and patients using barcodes and data management platforms. 300,000 COVID-19 tests were processed by eLABS between July and December 2020.

And in the US, we are working with a leader in automated molecular diagnostics, to provide connectivity for their COVID-19 testing machines.

These portable automated molecular test systems provide rapid detection of the COVID-19 virus in under 45 minutes. The portability of the testing equipment makes it easy to deploy, but also requires machines to be connected reliably, quickly, and securely globally.

This is particularly important for this company, as they plan to deploy their solution to developing countries.

The power of digital

Technology has had a critical role in helping the world fight the virus, from powering remote working and enabling data processing during trials, to helping find treatments for patients and keeping them connected to their families when they had to be apart.

I am proud of our purpose-driven teams in Vodafone, who worked incredibly hard to pull together technology solutions that were the need of the hour, by adapting existing products and even creating new ones.

And whether it is facilitating continuity of treatment, improving the speed of delivering test results or ensuring that vaccines can be shipped across the globe efficiently and safely, it’s great to see our IoT playing a role in enabling us all to gradually return to our normal lives.

Find out more about the benefits of IoT.

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