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Opinion Piece: Technology key in reaching herd immunity goals for COVID-19 vaccine roll-outs

Opinion Piece: Technology key in reaching herd immunity goals for COVID-19 vaccine roll-outs

To achieve the 60% target deemed necessary for herd immunity, Africa needs to vaccinate 780 million people out of a population of 1.3 billion and in South Africa, 40 million people need to receive the vaccine. While SA’s vaccination roll-out plan is currently on pause, frontline healthcare workers are still receiving the vaccine as part of the Sisonke medical study. Once the government has secured the necessary doses to restart the programme, there will be no time to waste in rolling out these lifesaving shots across the continent. However, achieving herd immunity will be no small feat. This will require the use of the correct cold chain and storage management including temperature monitoring and alert technology to ensure that vaccines reach even the most remote parts of Africa safely.

Africa is a continent with its own unique challenges, which is why we need technology solutions built to answer our specific obstacles and thankfully, ICT technology providers in Africa are already accustomed to solving complicated problems. Just as important as it is to procure the doses our continent needs, countries also need to focus on urgently investing in ICT, digital and data solutions that will protect the vaccinations as they journey from the pharmaceutical manufacturer to the end user.

Technology integral to every step

The manufacturing, transportation, storage and delivery of temperature sensitive products requires an unbroken cold chain.  Cold storage is a critical component in the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain and the massive quantities required could easily exceed limitations in refrigerated capacity in warehouses, vehicles, and healthcare facilities. In addition to ramping up cold storage infrastructure, end-to-end temperature logging will be necessary, as well as real-time monitoring and reporting of temperature and humidity through automated sensors throughout the cold chain to maintain integrity. It may not be possible to meet the high demand for the vaccine using currently available cold storage and fragile stock vehicles and facilities, so third party logistics companies will need to pick up the overflow. Here, contracted providers will need to meet requirements of performance and compliance management, with contractual Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in place underpinned by real-time monitoring by means of tracking dashboards and integrated systems.

For supply chain management to become proactive, end-to-end inventory visibility is vital, to understand when vaccines will be available for use, and to avoid damage or theft. Technology will help to protect vaccines against the harmful effects of a break in the cold chain through proactive real-time alerts through an integrated, cloud-based temperature monitoring system. This allows time for remedial action to prevent damage and spoilage. To avoid theft or damage, data on tags from COVID-19 vaccine batches can be used for tracking purposes and stock can be identified by manufacturer and expiry date, which is critical given the product’s comparatively short shelf life.

Having a clear picture of the supply chain will lead to better demand planning, and can help inform decisions on the ordering, distribution, allocation, storage and returns, in such a way that it’s possible to avoid overloading the distribution system and eliminating wastage. To ensure that the vaccination is received by the correct recipient in accordance with the government’s phased approach, the Electronic Vaccine Data System (EVDS) has been developed to capture vaccination events digitally. A web-based application, this system will also be used to monitor and report on vaccinations by means of a data analytics platform.

Homegrown solutions

African ICT providers are accustomed to overcoming complicated challenges. Gas-powered cooler units have been developed for instances where there is no electricity or cooling infrastructure and solar power is used to run refrigeration at remote medical facilities, showing that where there is a will, African ICT providers will find a way. Such a can-do attitude is critical to getting the infrastructure and technology in place to facilitate the vaccine roll out across the continent, and as Africans we should not be looking to our international counterparts for assistance. We have the skills, and we can provide the support and assistance necessary to enable countries to become self-sufficient and sustainable in the use of their technologies. By in-sourcing the necessary ICT skills, we can reduce external dependence, utilise technology that has been tried-and-tested in African conditions in order to solve our own problems.