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IT’s role in COVID-19 vaccine creation and distribution

Tue 12 Jan 2021

It would have been impossible to pull off a coordinated, verifiable, safe vaccine delivery without modern tech tools

Since early 2021, there have been many parallels drawn between the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Both were newly-discovered viruses, transmitted through respiratory droplets, and highly infectious.

However, there is one critical difference between then and now: modern technology has made the creation and distribution of a vaccine possible. This week, the UK launched its biggest ever mass-vaccination programme, aimed at protecting tens of millions of people from COVID-19 within months.

What role has and will IT play in making this and other vaccination projects a reality?

Creation 

Traditionally, vaccines were created using a weakened version of the pathogen that caused the disease, which basically meant starting from scratch when developing each new vaccine. For COVID-19, cloud and internet technologies were fundamental to sharing the pathogen online with the global medical community in January last year.

Without the information sharing supported by the internet, and collaborative tools enabled by the cloud, global researchers would have found it difficult to share data and begin the critical research necessary to begin vaccine development.

For example, AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical company responsible for the vaccine currently distributed in the UK, uses a hybrid cloud environment that combines four different platforms: AWS, Azure, Google Cloud, and Alibaba. Equinix provides the interconnect for these platforms, while NetApp was engaged to provide an abstraction layer for point-of-need, reliable global access to up-to-date data.

On a wider scope, the platform for testing potential vaccines is a flexible, ‘plug-and-play’ solution. Essential components of different possible antigens can be plugged into the platform to test for effectiveness quickly and easily – and the flexibility of the platform supports a variety of possible solution types, from DNA/RNA, to peptide, to live/inactivated virus approaches.

A standard development, testing and approval cycle for a new vaccine usually takes 10-15 years. In 2020, the global community responded to the urgent need for a COVID-19 vaccine, and applying the technology at hand, began human vaccine testing in March of 2020[1], just two months after the pathogen was released.

Distribution

Technological advancements are supporting the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine as well. Shipping the vaccine at scale to the right people is an enormous undertaking that requires coordination of communications between healthcare providers, patients, federal, national and local governments, and other key stakeholders.

The vaccine has two requirements that complicate distribution even further. Depending on the type of vaccine, a second dose may be required at an interval of 21 or 28 days; and certain types of vaccine must be kept at extremely cold temperatures for transportation and storage. Some of the technology vital for vaccine distribution and delivery includes:

Location intelligence

In the U.S., each box of vaccines is equipped with a GPS tracker, that provides real-time location awareness and verification. The boxes are also barcoded and scanned upon delivery, sending an alert should the box be scanned at a different destination than expected.

Temperature sensors

IoT temperature sensors have also been deployed on every box of vaccines, to ensure that they are kept within the necessary range. Again, any variation is communicated through an alert system so that appropriate decisions can be made.

Routing optimisation via ML

MNC delivery giant FedEx and tech titan Microsoft joined forces to create Surround: a shipping analysis tool that uses machine learning to accurately predict potential delays and even reroute vaccines for faster delivery. Surround sends real-time data from low energy Bluetooth chips and other data sources, like weather and mapping, for analysis on the Azure cloud to optimise distribution.

Side effect monitoring

The short timeline to distribution has led to a heightened level of concern about possible side effects of the vaccine. To track the reactions and possible adverse effects among patients that have been given the vaccine, the US Center for Disease Control created a smartphone app called V-Safe. With V-Safe, the CDC verifies that vaccines have been given, communicate with individual patients about side effects or reactions, and gather data for large-scale analytics.

Tech on our side

Creating and distributing vaccines on a global scale is an unprecedented undertaking, for pharmaceutical companies, for government entities, and for healthcare providers and their patients.

Cloud platforms allow for real-time, global communication and data sharing; while IoT sensors make it possible to track each box of vaccine, for agile responses to changing conditions. AI improves the accuracy of forecasting and routing optimisation; temperature sensors help to make sure individual doses are safe for treatment; and data tracking and patient communication platforms like email, SMS and text messaging help healthcare providers track, communicate with, and manage patient care.

One can believe that it would be impossible to pull off a coordinated, verifiable, safe vaccine delivery without the tech tools in use, each involving the application of advanced technologies.

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Coronavirus Covid-19
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