Satellite IoT Tech's Role in Vaccine Distribution

The world is facing a bleak winter in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic. Health experts have warned that the coming weeks will be challenging, as COVID cases are at the highest point in many parts of the United States, which recently hit more than 4,000 COVID-19 deaths on a single day. Even Europe and parts of Asia, which had seemed to control the virus over the summer and through the fall, are facing a winter surge.

But at the same time, there is a light at the end of the tunnel as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccine are rolling out across the globe — and each person that takes the vaccine brings hope for a return to normal life.

Yet vaccine rollout in the United States has already been criticized as too slow. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar predicted earlier that that 20 million people would be vaccinated by the end of 2020 — yet at press time, about 16 million people have received it in the United States according to a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tracker.

The vaccines themselves pose another challenge to coordinated rollout — their temperature needs. Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be kept extremely cold — minus 70 degrees Celsius. And Moderna’s vaccine needs to be minus 20 degrees Celsius, about the temperature of a regular freezer.

That’s where satellite technology comes in. Satellite Internet of Things (IoT) company Orbcomm has offers a cold chain telematics solution, which its customers — shipping companies — are using to deploy the vaccine. The end-to-end product allows shipping companies to monitor the temperature of shipments at the level of a trailer, container, or even a pallet.

Orbcomm supplies a piece of hardware that connects to a refrigerated device, which passes information by satellite or cellular connection to Orbcomm’s application. The application is integrated into customers’ systems, and so managers, dispatchers, and drivers can monitor temperature in real-time and adjust the temperature if needed.

Other IoT products can track and report temperature, but satellite connectivity as part of an end-to-end solution is what sets Orbcomm apart, Chris MacDonald, Orbcomm senior vice president and general manager for the Americas tells Via Satellite. Orbcomm has a satellite constellation of its own OG2 and OG1 satellites, uses third party satellite networks, and works with multiple cellular providers for access to terrestrial networks. This allows shipping companies to keep eyes on the vaccine, or whatever they are shipping, with continuous communication, even in the most remote areas beyond the scope of cellular networks.

“It provides visibility redundancy,” MacDonald says. “If there's a weak cell signal or a busy cell signal — which we see more and more in busy metropolitan areas, cell networks go down due to many people utilizing it — our devices will route over to our satellite constellation, and offer a service independent of either of either signal.”

Orbcomm has offered this product before the pandemic, and more than 2 million of its IoT devices are in use tracking assets worldwide. MacDonald says Orbcomm was already working with pharmaceutical transport companies and specialized shipping, but the company has heavily focused this product for food safety in the past.

Orbcomm is working to hone the product to fully meet pharmaceutical compliance, which is more strident than food safety standards. Where some pharma applications may want updates every 15 minutes, and food service may require an update every 20 minutes or every hour, COVID vaccine shipments need to be monitored constantly. Now, Orbcomm can even provide data at the level of the actual product, by using either Bluetooth connectivity with a sensor, or Radio-Frequency Identification (RFID) connectivity within the trailer.

“The trailer becomes more of a smart trailer with multiple avenues of communication paths. RFID, Bluetooth, cellular, and satellite could all be coming out of one trailer,” MacDonald says of the different modes of connectivity working together.

He emphasizes that the goal is to have complete visibility on the status of the vaccine. “It’s visibility to be able to monitor compliance, but it's also visibility to people,” he says. “The driver, for example, has visibility to temperature in the cab so he or she could react to the temperature going out of range. It’s essential to have multiple sets of eyes on the shipments.”

MacDonald says the COVID-19 vaccine is among the most precious cargo that Orbcomm’s technology has supported for deployment, but the company is no stranger to disaster relief. Orbcomm’s technology supported vaccination for the bird flu and other critical flu vaccination deployments, and assisted with disaster relief for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and Hurricane Harvey in Houston, Texas.

“We’ve worked closely in the past with the American Red Cross because when national disasters come, they tend to take cell networks down. With our satellite offering, we're able to have maximum uptime,” MacDonald says. “We’ve been at the forefront in Puerto Rico and in Houston to get resources, food, and water into these places. We've been able to help regenerate life in some of those areas.”

MacDonald says that as vaccine deployment is rolled out to more groups and then the general population, it will make last-mile transportation more important. More transportation will need to specialize, to have this type of connectivity in order to roll the vaccine out to local drugstores or elementary schools, for example.

As the trucking industry in North America has gone through an economic adjustment in recent years, the industry is now investing in equipment, its workforce, and avenues of growth, MacDonald says. He sees connected transportation solutions like Orbcomm’s cold chain telematics product as part of the rebound in North American transportation.

“Many of our shipping companies already have the solution in place. UPS and the FedEx Custom Critical division have really been at the forefront, and pharma and bio transport [companies] are set up for this. To them, it's just another load,” MacDonald says. “Some of the other carriers, the IoT technology has opened their eyes to a new avenue for their business to explore. As we roll out the national and international disbursement of vaccination, I think you're going to see a lot more players emerge to be able to support and transport the vaccine, provided they have full IoT connectivity.” VS

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