IoT Companies Track Goods Aimed at COVID-19 Treatment, Vaccinations

First published on rfidjournal.com, 4 April 2021. Written by Claire Swedberg.

Mezzanine, Controlant and other firms are leveraging Vodafone's Internet of Things networks to bring visibility to vaccines, gloves, syringes and more as they travel to healthcare workers worldwide.

The global challenge of delivering supplies and medicines quickly to healthcare providers is being addressed by some companies using Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity to track everything from vaccines to boxes of gloves as they are transported to all continents in the ongoing effort to treat patients and control COVID-19. Since last year, Vodafone Business has been providing IoT-based pandemic-response solutions to healthcare service providers and technology companies around the world.

The solution leverages a SIM card with cellular connectivity via Vodafone’s cellular network, as well as a cloud-based software platform that tracks the locations of personal protective equipment (PPE), vaccines and healthcare supplies used in caring for COVID-19 patients and the delivery of vaccines. With this solution, Vodafone Business manages the supply chain for third-party providers. In other cases, companies may already offer IoT-based devices, such as sensors or connected coolers, that could leverage its network for connectivity.

One example of the supply chain management solution is leveraged by Mezzanine, Vodafone’s subsidiary in South Africa. Since the company’s launch in 2012, Mezzanine has designed and built digital technology-based solutions for customers in the agricultural and healthcare spaces across Africa, according to Jacques De Vos, the company’s CEO. Mezzanine’s IoT solutions are being used by governments and businesses in South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Mozambique, Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Malawi and Tanzania.

In addition, Mezzanine uses IoT technology in its Stock Visibility Solution (SVS), a network-agnostic mobile application for healthcare facility pharmacies. The solution provides location information for medicine supply chain management. Mezzanine expanded the system’s capability to supplies last year, De Vos says, to better serve health facilities testing or treating COVID patients or providing vaccinations.

These days, SVS is intended to deliver what De Vos calls instant digital data collection, “enabling better distribution of much-needed equipment to healthcare practitioners.” The latest expanded functionality of SVS, he adds, provides centralized, end-to-end visibility about goods needed by healthcare workers, to ensure they can properly serve the public whether individuals are being treated or vaccinated. “During the pandemic,” he notes, “this proved to be essential.”

Gloves, masks and sanitizers are among the essential items the company is helping customers track with its IoT technology. “Avoiding stock-out of these items is critical,” De Vos explains. “Providing high-quality care is not possible without protecting healthcare professions, as well as patients.” For instance, as part of the vaccination process, PPEs, syringes, registration cards and “I’ve been vaccinated” stickers are required. The SVS solution is intended to help agencies and companies ensure all items are available in the right place, in the correct amounts and at the proper time.

With the solution, goods can be tracked using a smartphone barcode reader or wirelessly to track goods. For instance, as it moves through the supply chain, a SIM card could collect GPS location data and forward it via the Vodafone cellular network. The information is captured on Vodafone’s platform and then transmitted to Mezzanine’s cloud-based software, thereby providing an update on the location and status of goods. Mezzanine can then share that data with its customers, as well as identify and address any supply chain issues in real time.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the SVS has been deployed at 350 public hospitals throughout South Africa, in all the nation’s provinces except for Western Cape). This, according to the company, has helped the facilities monitor stock levels of masks, gloves, sanitizers, visors, gowns, boot covers and goggles, among other goods. PPE stock items were also added to the inventory list of 3,500 primary health facilities already using SVS in South Africa for the purpose of medicine tracking. The PPE and other supply logistics data can be sent directly to the National Surveillance Centre at the Department of Health and its COVID-19 Data Lake (data repository) via Mezzanine’s APIs.

The South African technology company has added a module to capture occupational health and safety information from the facilities, in order to ensure PPE protocols are being followed. Mezzanine’s solutions are designed to respond to the last-mile needs of the Sub-Saharan Africa markets it serves, De Vos says. Authorized users can utilize any GSM provider’s SIM card to access the SVS cloud-based Web-management portal. “We offer the benefit of a corporate APN [access point name] in our core Vodafone Business markets to enable cost control and additional security measures,” he notes, adding that SVS works both online and offline, making it suitable for rapid, cost-effective deployment in low-resource and low-bandwidth environments.

For Vodafone Business, Mezzanine is one of many examples of how its network can be used for pandemic response in healthcare. “We’ve been tracking goods around the planet since the very start of the IoT,” says Phil Skipper, Vodafone Business’s head of strategy for IoT. What’s happening now, he says, is the need for intensive condition monitoring during the vaccine rollout. “So we’re providing the same critical connectivity, but in the medical space.” Companies approach the problem from multiple angles, he explains, depending on whether they already offer solutions that need connectivity or want to leverage Vodafone Business’s full solution. “But all can employ an IoT network.”

The company provides global connectivity to 570 networks across 182 countries, and Skipper says the firm has been involved with the pandemic since the outbreak’s early stages. Solutions were initially focused on providing field hospitals with connectivity and wireless infrastructure, such as nurse-call devices, tablets, heat-detection cameras and monitoring services for patients who may be at risk of contracting COVID-19. “We connect 120 million devices worldwide and operate globally,” he states.

Another company using the network is Controlant, an Iceland-based digital supply chain monitoring technology firm, which uses a cellular-based IoT network from Vodafone Business to make the monitoring of temperature-sensitive medicines and vaccines possible around the world. The solution consists of Controlant’s own trackers, which employ the Vodafone IoT card to link to its network for connectivity.

Typically, the tracker is attached to a coolant box, where it transmits its location and temperatures as the box travels throughout the supply chain. With the Vodafone network, Skipper says, “It gives you that end-to-end visibility that you need.” Controlant can thus provide key data to its customers, such as whether or not a specific shipment arrived on time and within the required temperature parameters. Controlant provides its solution to customers that monitor the locations and conditions of vaccines moving from a pharmaceutical manufacturer or distributor to a healthcare provider.

Vodafone Business conducted its “IoT Spotlight 2020” survey of 1,639 companies to learn the effects that the Internet of Things had on their operations. Of those respondents, 73 percent indicated that the IoT has brought them a significant return on investment.