Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

Humble hero: How RFID is helping end the pandemic

A common technology takes on an uncommon mission: Distributing vaccines around the globe.

RFID emerging as key tool during pandemic

Last month, I wrote about a novel deployment of RFID technology to track vaccine temperature. As states rush to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to the public, RFID has been an important and readily deployable tool to verify temperature consistency as firms like Powercast, a leader in RF wireless power, pivot to help healthcare providers.

Since then, RFID continues to prove an uncommonly valuable tool for managing the supply chain complexities of virus distribution -- and it can hardly be implemented soon enough.

"While the newly FDA-approved COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are a welcome reprieve from the effects of the pandemic, hospital pharmacies face an immensely complicated roll-out," Dr. Alan Portnoy, Pharmacy Operations Manager at Reading Hospital, tells me. "As 2020 ended, American hospitals needed to pivot overnight to store a temperamental vaccine presentation, outfit their hospitals as vaccination centers, and ensure they were properly stocked with the vaccines themselves, ancillary supplies, and the staff needed to make the roll-out successful."

Vaccines from the various pharma companies working on COVID-19 have different storage requirements, making the process of shipping, storing, handling, and distributing the vaccines dizzyingly complicated.

"This is a tall order, especially after months of pandemic clinical stress and related staffing issues," says Dr. Portnoy. "The Pfizer vaccine, for example, needs to be stored at -80 degrees. Once removed from the freezer, it is only viable for five days (a five day Beyond Use Date (BUD), as it is known)."

One major problem is that much of the inventory tracking is still done by hand.

"We quickly faced the issue that our vaccine inventory counts were incorrect at the end of some days," says Dr. Portnoy. "The manual workflow to receive and administer these vaccines is extremely susceptible to human error, as vials must be counted by hand, and are most vulnerable when they leave the ultra-freezer for the refrigerator, they are transported to the vaccination clinic, or the unused vaccine vials are returned to the refrigerator."

Those complexities have made humble RFID technology, which is now a mainstay of global logistics, an unlikely technological lynchpin of successful vaccine distribution.

"RFID is an established and best practice technology for inventory tracking in retail, aerospace, and manufacturing, and is used in applications from retail loss prevention, to pet microchipping, to marathon race timing," explains Mike Olson, Product Manager at Kit Check, a company that's moved quickly to deploy its technology in vaccine distribution. "RFID technology has also been applied in the industry for decades, as its encoding and reading capabilities allow for scanning without requiring a line of sight like barcodes do. This is important for use cases like the Pfizer COVID vaccine, when identifying information about each vaccine can be read by RFID scanning stations and a BUD can be encoded by the same scan."

A huge advantage of RFID is that it's so abundant, including in healthcare applications, which means it has a low bar to clear with hospital and pharmacy procurement officers.

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"RFID has been a key tool in healthcare for more than a decade, and August 2020 marked the launch of DoseID, the first industry consortium around RFID best practice usage in healthcare," Olson tells me. "This self-governing consortium was established to unify the industry around an approach to serialized, RFID-tagged pharmaceutical products. Its goal is to ensure the quality, performance, and interoperability of RFID tagged drug products as they move through the supply chain from the manufacturer, through the distributor, to the hospital and eventually into the patient, across any and all hardware or software systems. DoseID member companies include pharmaceutical manufacturers, automation vendors, like Kit Check, label convertors, and inlay manufacturers that manufacture the physical RFID chip. All manufacturers passed certifications from a third-party testing site to ensure their RFID products are of highest quality for hospitals."

Kit Check is a good example of a successful RFID rollout. The company partnered with Dr. Portnoy and Reading Hospital in January to set up a vaccine distribution workflow. The Kit Check team worked with Dr. Portnoy to prepare the Reading Hospital satellite vaccination storage area, which included an ultra-freezer and a Kit Check RFID scanning station. 

"Using the Shelved Inventory feature of the product, when Dr. Portnoy receives a shipment of the Pfizer vaccine, he creates, prints, and scans 195 RFID labels into the "Ultra Freezer" shelved inventory location," explains Olson. "Each RFID tag is encoded with the shipment's lot number and expiration. When vaccines are removed from the ultra-freezer, they must sit out for a few minutes to warm up, then a technician can apply the pre-printed, lot-specific Kit Check RFID label to each one and scan them in the Kit Check scanning station to start the 5-day BUD countdown. Dr. Portnoy also created a vaccine kit with an anesthesia drawer liner with a set PAR of 120 vials that remains in the refrigerator and is refilled at the end of each day."

Coming out of the pandemic, which has shown a light on how fragile the drug distribution pipeline and critical supply chains are, RFID is poised to expand its footprint even more in healthcare.

"The pandemic exacerbated drug shortages, and clinician stress and difficulty keeping full clinical staff can potentially lead to more medication errors and further shortages," says Olson. "RFID and a cloud-based inventory record, like the one Kit Check software creates, provides a framework to navigate shortages, replaces any shortaged items with alternatives in a systematic way, and ensures decreased medication errors in restocking."