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How technology can help solve the COVID-19 vaccine distribution challenge
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How technology can help solve the COVID-19 vaccine distribution challenge

When pharmaceutical companies started announcing successful trial results for their COVID-19 vaccines in the last few weeks, the world's reactions ranged from euphoria to relief and even hesitation. But now with the first few shots delivered, the focus has quickly turned to overcoming the logistical challenges of what will be one of the largest, fastest and probably most complex distribution of vaccines in history.

With the global supply chain disrupted by battered economies and forced lockdowns, the distribution of a vaccine threatens to overwhelm the infrastructure of many poorer countries. The challenge is particularly acute given that the first vaccine to be approved must be stored at -70 degrees Celsius.

Still, it's possible to inject efficiency into the process by combining technology and data to facilitate distribution at the local, national and international level. That means that it's not just pharma that has stepped up to combat the world's biggest health crisis in a century -- software companies are rising to the challenge and joining hands with governments and institutions around the world, too.

Data-driven distribution

The development of COVID-19 vaccines is an incredible effort that has highlighted the tradition of scientific breakthroughs involving private and public sector collaboration. But now, in many ways, comes the hard part. Governments and companies will need to find the solutions to make sure these vaccines that were made ready in record time actually reach the people who need them most.

Salesforce, a cloud-based software company and the global leader in Customer Relationship Management, announced this week it will collaborate with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, to help manage key data to distribute vaccines to all the corners of the globe. It also announced that more than 15 international, federal, state and local agencies, including the State of New Hampshire and the City of Chicago, are using the Salesforce Platform and Work.com for Vaccines to help them manage their COVID-19 vaccine programs.

"We are arming 190 countries and economies with the platform they need to communicate critical information around COVID-19 vaccine requirements and equitable distribution for as many as two billion vaccines by the end of 2021," said Rob Acker, CEO at Salesforce.org.

Mapping software giant Esri is also helping governments strategize around how to distribute the limited supply. Conscious that not everyone can receive a vaccine even as manufacturers adopt war-time production processes for record output, governments will need to focus on vaccine inventory and management to ensure the most effective distribution.

"You need to be able to read the barcodes on the vaccines and keep track of your inventory and expiration dates and who got which vaccines. [The Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines] both take two doses. If I got the first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, I cannot get the second dose of the Moderna vaccine. I need the same one," Este Geraghty, chief medical officer at Esri, said at a recent Protocol event.

Dr Samira Asma, Assistant Director-General at the World Health Organization for Data, Analytics and Delivery for Impact said data-driven decisions are vital for determining how and where to distribute vaccines. "Well-functioning data systems are extremely important for continuously monitoring vaccines throughout the COVID-19 vaccination program so we can all make a measurable impact on people's lives," she said.

Global strategy for a global economy

Initially, vaccine distribution seemed to focus on delivering doses in higher-income countries where the vaccines were developed. But organizations such as Gavi, in its role as co-leader of the World Health Organization's COVAX program, is an example of a public-private partnership that will help ensure fairer access to COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.

"The scale and urgency of the COVAX mission calls for tools we can expand quickly and use to manage what has become one of the largest and most complex undertakings ever in global health," said Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi. "With our colleagues at Salesforce, we will establish the backbone that allows COVAX participants and partners to share essential information and communicate with greater efficiency and accountability. The partnership will give people around the world, especially in the poorest countries, access to vaccines that help protect them from COVID-19 and stem the continuing catastrophic social and economic disruption the pandemic has already left in its wake."

This is music to the ears of those striving to find COVID-19 solutions in the world's low-income countries.

"It is imperative that the world should foster the capacity in the poorer regions of the world to develop, produce, test and distribute vaccines. This will not only be cost-effective, it will be more effective at stopping the spread both of COVID-19 and of future threats from virus mutations or new diseases," said Santiago Kraiselburd, CEO of Vaxinz, a biotechnology company focused on human infectious diseases in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Dr Ashwini Zenooz, chief medical officer at Salesforce, explained that "given we are a global economy, we need a global strategy" and that the success of a global vaccine distribution program lies in public-private partnerships that can endure what is set to be a long-term fight against COVID-19.

"This is a historic mobilization effort that we have not seen to date," she said. "It is going to be a tough effort. This would not be possible without the public-private collaboration to solve not only the treatment but now the vaccines at this scale so we need the continued transparency and collaboration. This is also not a one and done. It will go on for years."

Learn more about vaccine management here.