Traditional vaccine development is a slow-moving process, taking on average 10 years for an approved vaccine to reach the general population. But efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic have shown how advanced technologies are hastening this timeline, leading to the rapid discovery and production of new vaccines in record time. Consider Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, which took only 63 days to go from gene sequencing to the first human injection. Not only did technology play an impressive role in vaccine discovery, but it’s also critical as the nation further progresses in the vaccine rollout.
Technology is helping to optimize the supply chain across every sector of health care from manufacturers to federal and state governments to individual vaccination sites. This helps ensure that the critical steps in the vaccination rollout process flow smoothly and individuals will be able to:
- Find and schedule appointments
- Remain in communications with providers for vaccine updates and information
- Receive both shots in a timely manner
- Be monitored appropriately for potential side effects
A race against time: Combating the COVID-19 pandemic
The fight against COVID-19 has resulted in the most ambitious vaccination effort in modern times. In the U.S. alone, it is estimated that 1 million or more doses of the vaccine will need to be administered daily for the country to regain a sense of normalcy by mid-2021. The scientists delivered an effective vaccine in nothing short of a miraculous time frame. Now it’s time for America’s technology companies to do their part and enable vaccine deployment at a scale never before seen.
The goal of reaching herd immunity in time for school reopenings in the Fall of 2021, meaning 85% of Americans have been vaccinated, is now facing additional pressures as new, more contagious variants take hold in the U.S. Early evidence suggests that the South African variant may partially elude the immune response in Johnson and Johnson’s trial. With mounting pressures, where are the bottlenecks, and how can technology help speed the pace and efficiency of getting shots in arms?
–The Israeli vaccine rollout success story
In part, the process is fraught with challenges due to the structure of health care delivery and public health in the U.S. Each state is largely responsible for the rollout and deployment of its own strategy at the county or health district level.
Compared to a country like Israel, which has a national healthcare system, the U.S. is a patchwork of approaches and capabilities. Israel has managed to vaccinate one-third of its population due to mandatory universal health and a robust data system.
Their success has been met with some criticism due to an arrangement with vaccine supplier Pfizer to provide access to Israel’s rich database of health information related to vaccinations, side effects, and health outcomes.
As long as individual privacy is protected as required by law, this kind of rapid, aggregate data sharing and post-market surveillance is exactly what will be needed to vaccinate the world against this coronavirus successfully.
–The CDC sole-source contract
In contrast, let’s look at recent reporting by MIT Technology Review on a $44M system developed for the CDC designed to support vaccine deployment in the US. This story highlights both the challenges and opportunities for technology to drive speed and efficiency in the US distribution of vaccines.
The sole-source contract awarded to Deloitte for the development of VAMS (Vaccine Administration Management System) was supposed to address scheduling, inventory, and reporting related to coronavirus vaccinations. However, the platform has been fraught with challenges.
Some of these challenges are reminiscent of the infamous healthcare.gov launch with websites crashing due to high but anticipated traffic and long wait times on helplines.
However, some of the lessons learned from VAMS are related to rapidly emerging workflows and unique characteristics of individual populations and clinics. Technology Review’s reporting quotes a software engineer at the University of Virginia Medical Center which developed their own vaccine management system as saying,
“A lot of what these systems do is trivial, but the task was undefined. You had to try giving some shots, learn from it, and then figure out how to revise it to be more efficient. It really requires something flexible.”
Technology innovation can drive the COVID-19 vaccine rollout response
Creativity, flexibility, humility, and iteration are all key to technology’s ability to impact the course of this pandemic. Since COVID-19 hit U.S. shores, technological innovation has been a key driver in the nation’s response to a challenge that has shifted day by day.
New tracking and contact tracing solutions enlightened public health officials to the fast-moving spread of the virus. The use of virtual care platforms exploded as providers sought to prevent the spread by limiting in-person appointments and using remote patient monitoring to manage chronic conditions. Further, technology was deployed to automate notifications surrounding COVID-19 test results. This helped ease some of the burdens on overwhelmed healthcare providers.
A breadth of innovation continues to drive other aspects of the pandemic response. Brand name companies from both inside and outside healthcare, like Starbucks, Amazon, Honeywell, and Atrium Health, are coming together to bring technology expertise in supply chain management and real-time analytics about people’s movement through a system like a vaccination site to identify bottlenecks and break them down. Collecting and analyzing data to drive insights and then iterate on processes is exactly the kind of approach we will need over the coming months.
Innovations in vaccine distribution
Now that many variations of vaccines have been approved, new monitoring and tracking technologies are being used to ensure they arrive safely at their destination. Containers of vaccines are equipped with sensors so distributors can guarantee that temperatures remain within acceptable levels. GPS beacons enable real-time tracking to keep an eye on progress toward their destination. And barcodes are scanned once local authorities take possession of the vaccines.
All information is accessible to officials of the Vaccine Operations Center, which is the hub of the federal vaccine program known as Operation Warp Speed. As part of these efforts, the federal government also developed a new platform that allows state authorities and federal agencies to see their orders and track shipments.
Even shipping companies, like FedEx, have upped their technology game to expedite the delivery of the vaccine. In fact, a new monitoring technology leverages historical FedEx delivery data in combination with current weather and mapping information to analyze the best routes to ensure vaccines get to where they’re needed on time.
Once doses have been administered, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a new mobile app, called V-Safe, created to allow patients – rather than healthcare providers – to directly report unusual health effects after they’re vaccinated.
While many innovations have been launched on a national scale, what’s happening locally in communities is equally as important for a successful COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Notably, before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, my company, Rimidi, launched an EHR-integrated patient-reported outcomes survey app to help limit the spread of COVID-19 in healthcare settings.
The tool was one of the first designed specifically to flag patients with possible coronavirus symptoms, enabling health systems to mitigate the spread and optimize treatment based on individual needs. Putting the tool into use at Desert Oasis Healthcare (DOHC), over 30,000 patients have been screened for COVID-19 prior to appointments, with more than 3,300 monitored during self-isolation due to potential exposure.
Furthermore, using innovative technology, DOHC is now also able to more easily automate COVID test result notifications as the California surge overwhelmed staff. They are also monitoring post-vaccination symptoms as well as satisfaction with the vaccination process at the local level.
These insights into the experience of individuals undergoing vaccination at the local level are essential as we move beyond healthcare providers and the highest risk patients. Communities are facing vaccine resistance as well as equitable vaccine distribution. Rapid feedback from their own community will be needed to understand and address attitudes and to identify groups that current efforts are not reaching effectively.
The bottom line on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout
Since the beginning of the pandemic more than a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic has posed some of the biggest challenges we have ever faced as a country. The impact on our society has been broad, not just impacting the healthcare industry. Rather, everyone in the country has had to make sacrifices to prevent the spread of the virus. This is essential to keep ourselves, loved ones, and communities healthy.
Given the growth and adoption of next-generation technology and innovations in vaccine development, we’ve been able to come together to accelerate the response to this deadly virus. These innovations will save many lives and fundamentally change how we deliver healthcare both currently and well into the future.