How Healthtech Innovation Is Making Sure the COVID-19 Vaccine Gets in Arms
Technology is evolving to ensure the COVID-19 vaccine rollout remains effective.
In South Korea, a flu vaccination program abruptly ends after 13 unexplained deaths. In Canada, a batch of 85,000 vaccines is recalled due to adverse reactions that are “neurological in nature” (i.e., affecting brain function). Weeks later, Saskatchewan quarantines 31,000 flu vaccines as people who got the shots experience “sustained numbness or weakness of the face and/or limbs.” And all of this is just since the autumn of 2020.
This is not to say that vaccines are bad or unsafe. I’m no anti-vaxxer. Vaccines save millions of lives every year. Now, the 95-percent effective COVID vaccine has arrived (faster than I expected. This was literally warp speed). Fantastic! But… there are problems.
I’ve worked in the healthcare industry for decades. Right now, I’m running a startup that helps prevent recalled, potentially deadly medical devices and products from being used in healthcare facilities across the USA. Our technology helps manufacturers and distributors handle recalls in a timely fashion and makes sure that, for instance, your surgeon isn’t trying to fix broken bones with recalled medical cement. There are thousands of ways things can go wrong, in the manufacturing process or on the way to an operating room.
But this won’t affect the COVID vaccine rollout, right? I mean, we’ve been vaccinating since 1798.
And yet…those recent incidents with regular flu vaccines since October that I cited above tell a different story.
From the start of the pandemic, hospitals from coast to coast have struggled to provide front-line workers with masks that meet safety standards. It’s not like these facilities lacked motivation. And the resources were there -- but human error (and in many cases, outright fraud) has been a huge problem. By that yardstick, the vaccine distribution process is almost certain to face much more complicated challenges.
There’s enough demand out there that responsible companies will be able to top up their profit margins as they save the world. (As it happens, my own company is rolling out a scanning and tracking solution to help make this vaccination distribution process safer in the coming weeks). For entrepreneurs in the health field, this is the ultimate opportunity to prove their worth for customers and patients.
An epidemic of error? We’re about to put a miracle cure in the hands of error-prone human beings
I'm used to dealing with painstaking regulatory processes between dealing with the FDA, other major health regulators, and health facility administrators. I can tell you this: there will be frustrating, embarrassing and potentially deadly delays with the roll-out of this vaccine. It’s inevitable.
Every single step in the supply chain for this vaccine needs to go right. That’s from the manufacturer, to the truckers and shipping companies, to the receiving health facilities, right up to the literal point of contact with patients getting injections of the vaccine.
With the COVID vaccine, we have the added complication of a cold chain—actually, several. Different freezers will have to run at different temperatures for different vaccines from different manufacturers. Pfizer’s vaccine needs to be stored at minus 80 degrees, for instance—and most commercial freezers (if you can get your hands on them, given the rush) won’t even get that cold.
And at every hand-off, up to administering the vaccine to an actual person, you’ll need trained people to make sure that cold chain isn’t broken.
As someone involved in medical technology training, I can tell you that “miracle cure” technology is only as good as the professional delivering it. Adverse events can and do happen - more often than you’d like to think.
And the cold chain is only part of it. What about the syringes? About the packaging for those syringes? The gloves that a medical professional wears as they administer the dose?
There are steep challenges ahead. But let me also talk about the opportunity.
Related: Healthtech is the New Healthcare
How new technology can ensure a warp speed distribution of vaccines actually works
Today, health practitioners have access to technology that literally didn’t exist until now. I’m in a good position to know because we’re actually one of several companies on the front lines of meeting this challenge.
We have a solution that, in seconds, can scan each piece of equipment in the medical vaccine supply chain. That’s tied to a best-in-class database that tracks its temperature, how it’s used, and even where vaccines get wasted, so the right people can learn from mistakes and move to address shortages.
As well, we’ve just launched one solution that deals with further challenges, like tracking uses of vaccines (and wasted ones, especially given the limited supply of vaccines) or documenting errors, omissions and traceability between the patients and manufacturer. Aggregating data so that regulators, manufacturers and providers are on the same page -- those solutions are there if we can see widespread adoption.
If it sounds to you like something like that must have been in place for years, or even decades… I’m sorry to break the bad news to you.
But as I noted before, we’re now catching up. Manufacturers who do find issues with syringes, storage equipment or other critical pieces in this chain can now issue recalls much faster (compared to the standard method of issuing snail-mail to health facilities -- with adverse incidents happening in the time it takes the postal service to do its duty). What’s required now is a coordinated effort.
This is a time for leading-edge healthtech companies to really show what they can do. As it happens, the United Nations General Assembly recently declared Dec. 27 will be the “International Day of Epidemic Preparedness.”
Technology can help this COVID-19 rollout happen faster than insiders might expect -- and may even teach us lessons that can help us when the next pandemic comes to our shores.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer