The COVID-19 pandemic has put the importance of maintaining resilient supply chains into focus. Even today, many onlookers and industry experts worry about supply chain breakdowns that could cause substantial delays in delivering food and medical products. 

Moreover, the supply chains necessary to transport these vital, often temperature-sensitive products, are unique. Referred to in the industry as cold chain storage, these temperature-controlled supply chains allow food and medical products to reach consumers without expiring. It’s easy to see why these supply chains are so important when you consider that breakdowns in cold chain storage systems could lead to foodborne illness outbreaks and public health crises. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has put this issue into particular focus since the major COVID-19 vaccines must be stored at very low temperatures and transported around the world to healthcare facilities and patients. It’s no surprise that vaccine manufacturers such as Pfizer use specialized containers and dry ice when shipping their vaccines to healthcare centers. 

This is necessary because Pfizer’s vaccine should be stored at -94 degrees Fahrenheit before being thawed prior to being administered to patients. That temperature is well below what typical commercial freezers can maintain. As a result, these specialized shipping containers as well as ultra-low temperature freezers must be incorporated into cold chain storage systems for Pfizer’s vaccine.

Similarly, the Astra Zeneca vaccine must be stored at temperatures between 35.6 and 46.4 degrees Fahrenheit and Moderna’s vaccine must be stored at -4 degrees Fahrenheit. While these temperatures are not as low as those required by the Pfizer vaccine, supply chain professionals must nonetheless organize practices and procedures to make sure storage units are kept appropriately cool. 

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Data Monitoring for Cold Chain Storage

To ensure that all storage facilities are kept within predefined temperature ranges when transporting vaccines or other temperature-sensitive products, supply chain professionals must continuously monitor the temperatures of all storage units in operation. In the past, this was done using analog temperature monitoring instruments like thermometers and personnel that would manually measure temperatures and keep paper records of them. This has been one of the major challenges to cold chain storage since it was easy for human error to confound temperature records and for food and medical products to expire, putting consumers at risk. 

Unsurprisingly, this process has been largely digitized today. Now, pharmaceutical companies set up small electronic devices called data loggers, which measure and record the temperatures of storage facilities at regular time intervals. Typically, this data is then stored on the internal memory of the data logger before being migrated to an external computer using a Bluetooth or USB connection. 

Having this data stored electronically and transferred to a computer presents some obvious advantages compared to keeping paper records. Not only is the data more secure since it can be backed up, encrypted, and handled with data management best practices, but it also can be inputted into powerful data analysis software. This software can use sophisticated algorithms and machine learning to recognize specific patterns or causes for concern in cold chain storage practices. 

Keeping data securely stored electronically can also help alleviate concerns regarding data privacy

Many companies will even set up specialized data loggers that sense when storage unit temperatures are outside of preferred ranges and send an automatic alert to management. In fact, the shipping container Pfizer uses to ship their COVID-19 vaccines comes equipped with a data logger that continually measures the temperature within the container. Upon delivery to a healthcare facility, workers will confirm they received the product at the required temperature via an interface on the container, which then sends a message to the vaccine manufacturer over the internet.

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Transmitting Temperature Data Efficiently

A common challenge in pharmaceutical cold chain storage is to efficiently transmit, share, and format temperature data. To meet this challenge, many pharmaceutical companies are leveraging the power of the cloud and data colocation centers. By working with cloud service providers like Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform, and Microsoft Cloud pharmaceutical companies can effectively rent IT infrastructure. 

This prevents companies from having to buy, maintain, and upgrade their own IT systems to maintain temperature data. That can represent real savings in hardware, recruiting, and labor costs. According to Dickson Data, cloud-based software tools are an important part of cold chain logistics today. 

Moreover, cloud storage can be used in conjunction with internet-connected data loggers to enable real-time temperature monitoring for pharmaceutical companies. That means that rather than temperature data first being recorded on the data logger and later transferred to a computer, it can be immediately transmitted over the internet to a cloud storage system. Managers’ ability to oversee the temperatures of storage facilities in real-time gives them the ability to intercede early in the case of equipment malfunctions or temperature fluctuations.

Why Temperature Mapping is Important for Cold Chain Storage

Another common challenge when setting up a pharmaceutical cold chain system is that temperatures of different areas within the same storage unit can vary substantially. This can be caused by a variety of factors ranging from the placement of the unit, to ventilation, to how full the unit is. As a result, a data logger stored in one area of the unit might report normal temperatures while products stored in another area might be overheating. 

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To solve this problem and minimize vaccine wastage, pharmaceutical companies use temperature mapping strategies. Temperature mapping involves placing several data loggers in different areas of a storage unit to get a more accurate picture of the temperature of the unit at large.

When used in conjunction with internet-connected data loggers and specially designed software, companies can even view the temperature of the storage unit through an intuitive interface. Temperature mapping helps prevent products stored in different parts of a storage unit from expiring and endangering patients. 

To sum up, pharmaceutical cold chain management doesn’t come without its fair share of challenges. These challenges include transmitting temperature data, storing temperature data, and executing temperature mapping strategies. Luckily, pharmaceutical companies are taking proactive steps to meet these challenges head-on. 

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