- Emerging markets haven’t had equal access to COVID-19 vaccines—and many countries need improved infrastructure for distribution.
- Tech start-up Nexleaf is monitoring cold-chain storage to maintain vaccine temperatures and efficacy.
- Nonprofit organization WeRobotics is using drones to bring vaccines to remote areas.
- Simprints is rethinking how IDs can improve access to health care.
As COVID-19 vaccines have rolled out across North America and Europe, the concept of returning to a “normal” life after 18 months of pandemic restrictions started to feel possible. But worldwide access to the vaccine is still limited, with affluent countries purchasing and distributing the life-saving injections before smaller, emerging countries get the investment and innovation needed to improve their infrastructure for managing the influx of medicine and the outflow of shots into arms.
Indeed, the organization it takes to inoculate the world’s population against a new viral threat is vast, and the work that’s been done is nothing short of miraculous in what’s being called the largest global vaccination campaign ever. While even the most affluent countries have faced difficulties with vaccine rollout, vaccine management in emerging markets is a very difficult task. More work is still needed as roadblocks unique to countries, regions, and communities stand between the pandemic’s rapid spread and global immunity.
In that space, however, technology, design thinking, and ingenuity flourishes. Three Autodesk Foundation grantees have stepped into those gaps between vaccine creation and jab delivery. Their work during today’s pandemic is laying the foundation for stronger systems in the future.
Innovation for Reliable, Safe Storage
“In order to work when they arrive, vaccines need to be kept within a certain temperature range at all points of their journey, from a manufacturer to a national storage room; to regional and more local facilities; and on trucks, boats, airplanes, and motorcycles in between,” says Amy Fowler, director of vaccine programs at Nexleaf Analytics. The storage needs and procedures that keep the vaccines safe is called the “cold chain,” and ensuring that proper temperatures are maintained throughout the vaccines’ journeys means the difference between on-time delivery of life-saving doses and vaccines that won’t work and must be discarded.
“When a vaccine leaves its ideal temperature range, we call this a temperature excursion,” Fowler says. “After a series or a certain duration of time spent in a heat excursion—or an event of a shorter period spent in a cold excursion—most vaccines lose potency and will not work. That means, in a best-case scenario, the vaccine is not used, and new vaccines need to be procured. Unfortunately, it can also mean that vaccines that have not been closely monitored are used and do not deliver the intended immunity. For vaccines to work and deliver the huge promise they offer, cold chains must be strong and monitored.”
That’s where Nexleaf’s sensor technologies, data, and analytics have a significant role to play. The monitoring system, called ColdTrace, uses sensors to collect critical data on the cold chain’s performance. If a temperature excursion occurs, facility health workers and staff will get alerts so they can “physically go to the fridge or freezer and assess any issues,” Fowler says. Furthermore, remote monitoring helps decision makers at higher levels assess critical needs in their cold chains—a fridge or freezer may need to be repaired or replaced—so they can allocate the resources to meet that requirement.
“We want countries to be driving their own decisions and solutions,” Fowler says. “A regional or national officer will have a lot more context and better perspective over why a piece of equipment isn’t performing, and we are confident the best outcomes occur when they are equipped with data to identify and respond to any issues in the cold chain.”
Indeed, a pilot study in Kenya found that Nexleaf’s monitoring system increased the time cold-chain equipment was in the optimal range from 83.9% to 90.9%. Likewise, the amount of time spent in a temperature range that was too cold, which is often more dangerous, Fowler says, decreased from 6.5% to 1.5%.
“Data suggested that these improvements were caused by improved responsiveness to alerts at the facility level and improved ability at the management level to address repeated problems,” Fowler adds.
Last-Mile Vaccine Delivery
WeRobotics is mobilizing for the moment the globe faces now. The nonprofit excels at responding to the pandemic’s demands with solutions that help local organizations get what they need where they need it most. By co-creating and supporting Flying Labs—independent and locally led knowledge hubs—the organization ensures that local experts are the ones leading these efforts. Its solution for delivering COVID-19 vaccines: a drone add-on that’s built—well, rebuilt—for taking vaccines into areas that are difficult to reach.
WeRobotics equips Flying Labs with its newly engineered cargo-drone upgrade for their existing industrial drones, which are used for any number of purposes, such as mapping. Now, with those drones already distributed worldwide, WeRobotics can help local experts rework them to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to the hardest-to-reach communities.
“The cargo-drone upgrade is a combination of new electronics and software that can turn an industrial drone, like one used for mapping, into a highly reliable cargo drone,” says Patrick Meier, WeRobotics co-founder. “By working with existing industrial drones, we’re able to keep costs lower than any other actor in this space, since everyone else manufacturers new drones for delivery purposes.”
In addition to keeping costs low, this thinking centers on the people who know the most about what needs to be done, when, and how.
“What’s important to keep in mind is that we don’t need to have large deliveries but, rather, frequent small-scale deliveries, since Flying Labs focus on hyper-local deliveries to small, dispersed villages,” he says. “This means that the storage area does not need to be particularly large. Local experts are fully in charge and fully trusted to operate medical drone deliveries independently. After all, they’re the ones with the local expertise, knowledge, and lived experience.”
Technology for Better, Smarter Identification
In many parts of the world, making a personal identification is as easy as handing over a photo on a government-issued card or reciting a unique number that carries with it decades of data.
But in other places, identification isn’t that simple or reliable. “There are about 1 billion people in the world who lack a formal identification,” says Christie Civetta, director of partnerships for Simprints, a nonprofit delivering biometric identification solutions. “In a lot of areas, especially rural areas, you might have people who have the same name; you might have folks who don’t know their birthdate, for example. It’s difficult, therefore, to identify those individuals.”
Simprints’ goal is to radically increase transparency and effectiveness with biometrics identity solutions. To put it another way, it’s trying to find unique physical characteristics—like the face, fingerprint, palm, ear, or even the bottom of a foot—that allow people to verify their own identities to access the essential services they need. That includes basic health care such as vaccines.
Civetta and Simprints have been working with Ghana Health Services (GHS) to ensure access to universal health coverage and to strengthen the country’s health care infrastructure. “We are essentially equipping their e-trackers, their digital health solutions, with biometrics to utilize it as that unique identification system to ensure they can have a greater level of data quality from a programmatic perspective,” she says. “And so that the individuals actually receiving those services have a reliable way of pulling up their medical records time and time again.”
This technology has been an emerging solution for several years. But the need for it may have increased exponentially in the past 18 months “especially in what they consider at the moment the quote-unquote ‘new norm,’” Civetta says. “How do we provide and verify services in the world of COVID-19, where potentially you might want to reduce contact with individuals, you might want to reduce the handing over of ID cards, you might want to create more efficiency in terms of health services?”
To show how successful this technology can be, Simprints is working closely with GHS right now on maternal and child health care and routine immunizations. But Civetta says they see where this technology is headed, in Ghana and elsewhere. “I know the program will start small,” she says. “It’s widely understood that there are various benefits of biometrics and, therefore, there’s thoughts and conversations on how we utilize it, as well for things like vaccination rollouts beyond routine immunizations.”