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Long-Range Wireless Connectivity and Cold Supply Chain for the COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout


by Chris Boorman, Senior Product Manager, IoT Platforms at Laird Connectivity

The global vaccination plan for COVID-19 is being called the most complex logistical effort in history by experts in logistics, technology and public health. A professor at Johns Hopkins University, which has played a prominent role in studying the pandemic, told USA Today that this vaccine distribution strategy is “one of the most mind-bogglingly complex supply chains ever built.” The highly-respected medical journal the New England Journal of Medicine called the logistics of the vaccine rollout “one of the most complex tasks in American public health history.” And ABI Research recently published a research report with the non-ambiguous title, “The Exponential Complexity And Scale Of Vaccine Distribution.” Similar assessments have been made by other experts ranging from the heads of international health organizations to Dr. Fauci. How do you vaccinate billions of people in every corner of the globe with vaccines that must be kept in a narrow range of temperatures and environmental conditions in order to protect their safety and efficacy?

The initial wave of vaccinations in nations like the U.S. and U.K. using the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines is a case in point, but may obscure the larger issue. We’ve all seen news stories about the complexity of distributing these two vaccines to regional hubs and then to vaccination sites, due to the ultra-cold temperatures they must be stored at. That has put a bright spotlight on the complexity of distributing the first two approved vaccines, but those challenges do not disappear when additional vaccines are approved. In fact, the cold supply chain issues will increase in complexity. Yes, there are other COVID-19 vaccines, at different stages of approval, which do not need to be kept at temperatures as cold as the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, but they still require temperature controls and will need to be distributed to a far wider set of geographies that pose tremendous challenges to cold supply chains. 

In order to vaccinate billions of people around the world, the growing list of approved COVID-19 vaccines will be distributed through a vastly-enlarged supply chain. If you look at the U.S. as an example, the current cold supply chain involved centralized distribution of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to only a few dozen hubs at the state level where it is then distributed to only a highly-defined set of locations within each state. That is complex enough, as we have all seen in the headlines the past few weeks. But what happens when the vaccine distribution supply chain expands to tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of locations around the world that include locations ranging from the Australian bush to the interior of Africa to the Amazon basin? 

The answer is to combine specialized freezers—which have been proven highly-effective in recent vaccination efforts such as those fighting Ebola and polio in Africa—with wireless temperature sensors that provide continuous remote monitoring of the vaccine storage environment. Utilizing wireless temperature sensors has proven to be the best practice for cold supply chain because sensors can travel with the products, provide real-time data, and eliminate human error in taking temperature readings. These sensors relay data through gateways that are connected to nearby network infrastructure. Ethernet, Wi-Fi or cellular connectivity are typically used to backhaul data from gateways, but these technologies are not always ubiquitous in the same environment as the sensors. You don’t have to drive too far outside of a city to experience that directly. Cellular and Wi-Fi connectivity can be spotty or non-existent away from metro areas, which is where LPWAN (Low-Power Wide-Area Network) wireless technologies come into play, transporting data from end nodes to the gateways. One of the most rapidly growing LPWAN technologies is LoRaWAN, which has excellent range and radio propagation characteristics to support the transmission of temperature data as part of cold chain vaccine distribution.

Wi-Fi is short range, with devices needing to be within a hundred feet or so of the connectivity source. Cellular connectivity has moderate range of roughly a quarter mile or a half mile for reliable connectivity. In contrast, LoRaWAN signals can be sent ten miles or more, and that distance can be extended to hundreds of miles with the use of inexpensive, easy-to-deploy repeaters. 

LoRaWAN is a technology that has already proven to be effective in the cold supply chain for food logistics. Like vaccines, many foods have a narrow temperature range and set of environmental conditions that they must be kept at in order to preserve quality and ensure safety. Wireless sensors are used in food storage and distribution to monitor those conditions in real time, reporting back to the gateway over LoRaWAN from challenging environments, such as inside fridges and freezers, where connectivity from the other wireless protocols would not be available or reliable.

For those of you unfamiliar with the LoRaWAN specification, it provides secure, bi-directional data transfer and communications with IoT networks over long distances and in the majority of cases nodes are operational for years without requiring a battery change. LoRaWAN nodes are often inexpensive and allow organizations to create low-cost networks that work where more traditional wireless technologies aren’t necessarily suitable or available. LoRaWAN is also highly-scalable and highly-interoperable, compatible with both public and private networks for the data backhaul and bi-directional communications. As mentioned already, one of its best qualities is the ability to perform in harsh environments, which requires good radio propagation and penetration capabilities or resilience against interference, conditions which will be common factors for consideration transporting vaccines across the globe.

The primary limitation that LoRaWAN does have is data throughput, which makes it less than ideal for high-data rate applications. However, LoRaWAN works very well for sensor networks that generate small packets of periodic or event driven data that are sent by the network back to a central location. This is exactly the type of data transfer that is involved with cold chain monitoring of vaccines in transit, so limited data throughput is not an issue for this use case. 

For organizations in the global supply chain for COVID-19 vaccines, what I have described above is not simply at the concept stage. LoRaWAN-enabled cold supply chain monitoring is a reality today and can be implemented immediately to support current vaccine distribution efforts. For example, LoRaWAN-enabled sensors like Laird Connectivity’s Sentrius RS1xx series and more specifically, the external RTD temperature probe monitoring temperatures down to -100°C, are the building blocks for these implementations. There are an abundance of LoRaWAN network ecosystem partners and LoRaWAN Network Server (LNS) providers (e.g. ChirpStack, Senet, The Things Network) and application servers to support and accelerate implementations. In recent months, LoRaWAN has also been embraced by Amazon Web Services (AWS) through their new AWS IoT Core for LoRaWAN platform, another fully managed service which enables users to connect their LoRaWAN networks directly into AWS IoT Core via AWS qualified LoRaWAN gateways, one of which is the Sentrius RG1xx from Laird Connectivity. 

This is proven technology utilizing world-class infrastructure that can support a global initiative like the vaccination campaign.

Utilizing LoRaWAN to deliver connectivity to wireless temperature sensors in COVID-19 vaccine distribution provides the kind of cold supply chain infrastructure that will ensure that vaccines remain safe and effective even when delivered to locations that are far from the nearest Wi-Fi signal or cell tower.

About the Author:

Chris Boorman is Senior Product Manager at Laird Connectivity, which provides a full range of wireless modules, antennas and sensors that simplify the process of using wireless technology. In his role at Laird Connectivity, Boorman oversees engineering and innovation for the company’s IoT platforms, including those that utilize LoRa technology. Boorman has more than 20 years of engineering experience in the telecom and IoT fields. Prior to joining Laird Connectivity, he held senior engineering positions at Fujitsu Services, Toshiba Business and UL Global Services. He is based in the U.K.