AI Being Applied in Hopes of Speeding COVID-19 Vaccine Supply Chain 

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AI is being applied to COVID-19 vaccine distribution supply chain software in hopes of striking a fair balance on the way to herd immunity. 

By John P. Desmond, AI Trends Editor 

The application of AI to the COVID-19 vaccine distribution involves separate supply chain problems: demand forecasting, supply chain management, quality assurance, and adverse event surveillance.   

How to flip the bits on each of those has varied from state to state. Some governments put a priority on older citizens with high-risk conditions and others on lowering the rate of eligibility.  

Sanford Health of South Dakota, for example, is using a machine learning model to identify which individuals are at the greatest risk of having severe COVID-19 outcomes, then applying the model to eligible groups, according to a recent account in Healthcare IT News.  

Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, Chief Physician, Sanford Health

“We can take a real-time picture that evolves over time, using computer learning to tell us what patients or what people in the Midwest get the sickest from COVID-19,” stated Sanford chief physician Dr. Jeremy Cauwels to Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). He sees the approach of using AI as more equitable than a random choice for administering the vaccine.  

Others share that view, especially companies with products and services to sell into this market. “The pace and scale of the vaccine rollout is unprecedented, and we are seeing AI play a role,” stated Lori Jones, chief revenue officer and president for the provider market at Olive, a provider of healthcare-specific AI services.  “We’ve got an important mission ahead of us still, and if we can’t expand the capacity of organizations delivering the vaccines to take on more patients faster, then there is a very real risk that this process could take years, not months,” she stated.   

Among its services, Olive technicians can transform FAQs into chatbots, to “AI-enable” digital call centers to better handle scheduling, preregistration, and communications around the vaccine distribution. 

Taking Demographics Into Consideration in Hopes of More Fair Distribution 

With higher rates of COVID-19 on patients of colorespecially Black, Latinx and Native Americanssome health systems see it as important to take demographics into consideration. The University of Wisconsin-Madison factored race into its algorithm to prioritize for the initial distribution of vaccines to employees, stated Shiva Bidar-Sielaff, chief diversity officer at UW Health, told MPR.  

“It’s incredibly important to realize that all data points to the fact that, unfortunately, race and ethnicity have been shown to create a much higher risk of hospitalization and death for COVID-19,” stated Bidar-Sielaff.    

“So when we looked at our algorithm, we saw that if you add age and SVI [social vulnerability index], which has that component of race and ethnicity, it’s a multiplier effect in how much higher risk an individual is at for hospitalization and death,” she stated. 

Getting the vaccine where it needs to be on time is a supply chain challenge, and an opportunity for well-positioned software providers. Genpact, the US technology and business process outsourced firm, has developed software for its clients in the pharmaceutical industry to help track batches of drugs as they move through a supply chain.  

The COVID-19 vaccines are challenging, stated Eric Sandor, the head of Genpact’s pharmacovigilance AI business, in an account in Fortune. Batches may be produced by different contract manufacturers at separate facilities, resulting in variations. Individual lots of vaccines must be stored, and which batch was used to vaccinate each individual must be tracked for safety reasons, Sandor stated.  

Blockchain Technology Seen as Having Potential to Help  

Blockchain technology could be useful for tracking doses through the supply chain, some suggest. IBM markets an “object-based supply chain management software that can track the location of every vaccine vial in near real time, and match the vial to those vaccinated with it, stated Tim Paydos, the company’s global general manager for government industry. IBM uses its Watson Health Analytics software to match zip-code level data on demographics and health status to try to forecast demand. IBM used the software earlier in the pandemic to help track supplies of personal protective equipment, Paydos stated. 

In another challenge, most supply chain software packages were designed to be used within a single organization. But COVID-19 vaccine doses and related supplies need to be tracked through a chain owned by many different partiesdrug manufacturers, courier companies, hospitals, pharmacies and various branches of government. They do not all use the same software, and some may be competitors reluctant to share data, or they may be subject to regulatory and compliance rules that make data sharing difficult. 

Jason Kelley, General Manager of Blockchain Services, IBM Global Business Services

IBM sees this as an opportunity for blockchain technology, with its digital ledger system underpinning cryptocurrencies. This ledger could provide a trusted, secure, and verifiable record of the chain of custody for every vial of vaccine to be used by every organization in the chain, stated Jason Kelley, General Manager of Blockchain Services for IBM Global Business Services. IBM is currently in discussions with several drug manufacturers about signing up for this blockchain-based solution, in order to create “a minimally viable ecosystem” to launch it, he stated. 

IBM is working with vaccine supplier Moderna directly on approaches for vaccination distribution that maximize visibility and real time tracking, according to a recent account in Supply Chain. The overall aim of the project is to accelerate information sharing between governments, healthcare providers, life science organizations and individuals. 

“Moderna is committed to working with a coalition of partners to increase education and awareness of the importance of vaccination to help defeat COVID-19,” stated Michael Mullette, VP, Managing Director North America Commercial Operations of Moderna. “We look forward to working with IBM to apply digital innovations to build connections between organizations, governments, and individuals to instill confidence in COVID-19 vaccines.”  

The two companies plan to explore vaccine management solutions for end-to-end traceability, which they hope will anticipate supply chain disruptions. They also plan to collaborate on a digital health pass solution built on blockchain technology, to help individuals control their personal health information so that it can be trusted and shared securely. 

“As governments, pharmacy chains, healthcare providers and life sciences companies continue to scale and connect their tools, and as new players enter the supply chain, open technology can help drive more transparency and bolster trust, while helping to ensure accessibility and equity in the process,” stated Kelley of IBM. 

Read the source articles in Healthcare IT News, in Fortune and in Supply Chain