There is perhaps no more singularly pressing issue in the world right now than the rapid production and distribution of the several vaccines that combat the Covid-19 virus. The quicker that doses of the vaccines can be made and shipped out, the quicker the world can get closer to normality and people can start living without fear again.
As with a lot of manufacturing in recent years, IoT is proving to be an absolutely vital part of the process when it comes to creating vaccines.
The challenges of vaccine manufacture
Before looking at how IoT is facilitating the vaccine production efforts around the world, it's important to first understand the issues that would typically slow down the process.
Typically the lead-times to get a vaccine out of the door can be broken down to incorporate 10% to 40% in quality assurance and quality control, while between 50% and 70% comes from the vaccine and biotech industry
Since time sensitivity is a major factor in the case of the Covid-19 vaccine, the ability to reduce these lead times would allow for the more rapid production of a greater number of doses. This would in turn, save more lives going forward.
IoT, AI and machine learning for more efficient vaccine production
Ultimately, factories are turning to IoT, automation and machine learning to speed up production.
Efficiency across the whole manufacturing plant can also be improved by the use of IoT, AI and machine learning, especially at a time when it is impossible to safely have the entire workforce in a building due to social distancing requirements.
IoT sensors give more stability and control in key control process parameters; measuring elements such as temperature, PH, pressure, O2, homogeneity, and others. With data from these areas, AI can then filter the relevant data to predict a loss in quality before it even happens. What's more, IoT sensors can also be used make sure workers present stay safe by monitoring distances and air quality.
The data gathered by IoT and processed by AI will also have a part to play in continually improving processes, even when production is live. In fact, a 2019 survey by PWC found that 81% of industrial manufacturers at the time said IoT improved efficiency. It is huge gains such as these that will allow those producing Covid-19 vaccines to increase output to a meaningful degree, leading to the vaccination of more people in less time
Supply chain monitoring
It's not just in the factories that IoT is proving beneficial to the vaccination effort.
Rollout, transportation and storage also pose their own challenges, as several of the currently approved vaccines lose their efficacy if they are not kept refrigerated. The Pfizer vaccine must be kept at -70°C, while Moderna’s needs to stay at -20°C, so temperature monitoring is critical.
IoT sensors are already regularly used to measure quality indicators such as temperature however, so ensuring that a vaccine dose doesn't break down due to heat is is simply a case of setting the parameters to cover the requirements of the vaccine being stored or transported. Using IoT, temperature can be monitored remotely, with alerts being sent out should any systems begin to fail or operate to a substandard degree.
In these cases, the logistics group operating the trucks can take positive action, re-routing trucks to arrive faster or return to a depot where crews can be ready and waiting to carry out the necessary repairs before vaccines can be compromised. Without IoT sensors onboard, it would be far more difficult to guarantee the safe delivery of such precious cargo.
Managing Data After Injections
It's not just during manufacture and supply that IoT is benefiting the Covid-19 vaccine programme, as IoT devices can also be used to aid patients after they have been vaccinated. Wearables can be used to track when individuals have had their first shot, and remind them when their second is due.
Meanwhile, hospitals can use IoT to make the roll-out process smoother by improving the efficiency of their record-keeping. The same principle applies, as they can keep better track of which patients in each risk category have been vaccinated and at what stage.
Finally, the use of IoT sensors to monitor temperature can be reapplied to the safe storage of blood plasma.
Antibodies found within plasma can lead to new vaccines and more effective treatments, but it must also be kept cool to prevent degradation. IoT sensors help prevent spoilage and waste of this precious material, allowing scientists to combat future threats more effectively.