Technology as an enabler to tackle COVID-19 better and faster

With vaccines and treatments being tested across the UK, US and EU, supply chain logistics will become the next big battleground in the fight to save lives; having the right technology to safely and effectively transport viable products will be critical, says Richard Ettl, CEO and founder of SkyCell

Technology has been at the forefront of tackling the COVID-19 virus. From the AI-based development of drugs to the modelling of non-medical containment measures, technology has already saved countless lives across the world.

However, as we begin to see the green shoots of the work being done to find effective treatments and vaccines, technology must once again help — this time with the transportation of viable candidates to ensure that they safely reach destinations around the world in good time and in pristine condition.

SkyCell has made it its mission to solve this problem through innovative smart container design and advanced data collection and modelling.

As pharmaceutical products change and become more precise, they become more vulnerable to the effects of changes to exterior conditions, from temperature to vibration and light. When you add this increased level of sensitivity to the industry’s widespread acceptance of a cargo spoilage rate of 4–12%, you get a sense of the logistical challenge ahead.

And, when the cargo in question is the key to ending a deadly pandemic, every spoiled dose exacts a high financial and public health cost. Technology must be used to increase the number of viable vaccines reaching doctors on the ground to treat the sick and vulnerable.

Mitigating risks through data

Unsurprisingly, data will play a vital role in the success of distributing a treatment. By modelling and simulating journeys using historical data points — such as temperature, time and location — pharmaceutical companies will be able to predict exactly where and when the product might experience conditions outside its safe range … and mitigate those circumstances.

Internet of Things (IoT)-capable intelligent sensors can also detect when temperature tolerances are exceeded, so that timely intervention can be taken when products are at risk.

In fast-moving situations such as the present COVID-19 pandemic, door-to-door protection is an important factor in limiting the exposure of pharmaceuticals to potentially compromising external factors. What happens all too often when exposure occurs is that these faulty drugs have to be retested before they can be administered to patients.

These retests can take up to a week to perform, only further delaying the medication reaching patients. By reducing exposure to these factors, such as time in transit and time in storage, the likelihood of the vaccines remaining effective increases and so any delays are prevented.

The right container

The container is the line of defence between external factors and a highly sensitive pharmaceutical payload. By using state-of-the-art materials such as shock absorbing feet and highly efficient insulation, SkyCell’s hybrid containers can now maintain pharmaceuticals within very tight temperature bands for more than a week.

Even if containers are left on tarmac runways that experience extremely high or extremely low temperatures, the internal temperature will remain stable.

Cooling technology that stores five times more energy than traditional methods also helps to keep the container at a steady temperature … and containers can be automatically recharged in a cooling chamber without any manual input.

The IoT sensors throughout the container, both internal and external, log information about vibrations, temperature, journey time and location. By relaying this data in near real-time, logistics companies can monitor the delivery and ensure the contents arrive safely and in a viable state.

For example, SkyCell recently completed a shipment with Dutch airline KLM and logistics company UPS for the German Federal Ministry of Health, successfully delivering 6541 kg of life-saving pneumococcal vaccines from Tokyo and Osaka to Frankfurt in only 11 days.

The containers secured the products at a constant 4.6 °C, ensuring the product arrived in Frankfurt in a viable and usable condition. This allowed access to the life-saving vaccine for 326,000 high-risk patients in the shortest possible time while preventing spoilage.

The use of big data to simulate journeys and IoT containers to mitigate circumstances that may cause damage to vaccines gives pharmaceutical companies the best chance of ensuring that viable treatments reach those who need them. It is vital that spoilage rates are kept as low as possible — and technology is the key in doing that.

These pharmaceuticals are not only worth millions of pounds but are also life-saving for many patients. It is imperative, therefore, that they are safe and secure and, as such, can be directly released to patients in need.

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