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How computer vision can help vaccine distribution scale securely

(Image credit: Shutterstock / Peshkova)

Vaccinating at scale and speed is well underway to suppress the Covid-19 virus and protect the population. Daily headlines report the triumph of science as new research demonstrates how vaccination is not only keeping people out of hospital but preventing transmission, too. Behind the scenes, another success story is unfolding – the logistics of distributing vaccines in precise ways, thanks to computer vision.

Computer vision on smartphones has proved essential to logistics and healthcare workers during the pandemic, increasing the efficiency of medical supply chains and ensuring employee safety. Computer vision scanning software recognizes visual markers such as barcodes and QR codes enabling workers to identify and verify a labeled package or vial quickly and easily with a single scan and marry a test sample with a patient ID. Combined with the ubiquity of the smartphone, logistics and supply chain leaders are realizing the potential that this technology can have to the national vaccine efforts and enable highly scalable, contactless, and faster distribution.

Making the smartphone the go-to digital platform for capturing test and vaccination data means citizens can play their part in protecting themselves. During the pandemic, people have embraced digital tools more readily as part of day-to-day work and life. Digital literacy has increased as people have adapted to telemedicine, home-schooling and socializing on digital platforms. Pairing computer vision on smartphones with augmented reality (AR) and other digital technologies creates new possibilities to work and interact with the physical world safely.

Here, we discuss the importance of contactless technology such as mobile computer vision in the post-Covid environment.

Secure vaccine supply chains 

Touch-free scanning of medical equipment has proved to be lifesaving during the pandemic, enabling health providers to spin out field testing stations. Now, computer vision promises to support the vaccine supply chain - a pillar of post-Covid life – by maintaining compliance with safety-critical storage requirements during transportation. Scanning data sensors in vans means workers can check that temperature thresholds for vaccines in transit are not breached.

Putting computer vision software on personal smartphones has proved to be the game-changer for logistics companies during Covid, letting workers interact touch-free with physical items. Take-up of mobile computer vision has accelerated, and by 2024, Gartner estimates 80 percent of ordering and replenishment will be touchless for most organizations (Gartner Predicts, 2021).

But players in logistics, postal and delivery sectors were familiar with - and reliant - on mobile computer vision well before Covid struck, using the combination to sprint the last mile to the doorstep. Mobile scanning is a frictionless way to identify and pick parcels from sorting rooms and vans. An AR overlay provides a neat way of communicating specific instructions about individual items. AR promises to play a vital role in the precise transportation of vaccines, which are created in response to variants of Covid.

Track and trace capability 

Mass vaccination appears to be more than fulfilling politicians' and people's hopes of an exit route from the Covid pandemic – but maintaining a secure supply chain of vaccines will be an ongoing challenge. Automating procedures reduce the wastage of precious vaccines and secure medical supply chains by ensuring expiry dates aren't breached. Computer vision on smartphones has also proved adept in provisioning a track and trace capability in healthcare, a critical aspect of any secure supply chain.

The evidence comes from the NHS Scan4Safety project, which uses scanning software on digital devices to automate the dispensing of drugs and medical appliances to meet EU regulations. Manually checking records would mean product recalls taking months or even years. Paul Lidder, consultant surgeon and Chief Clinical Information Officer of the Royal Cornwall, confirms: "The value [of mobile computer vision] lies in the ability to not only track and trace products but also react quickly when a problem does occur".

Having digital records that match each citizen to their test sample or vaccine batch is critical in helping governments overcome Covid-19 and oversee their population's health for track and trace reasons. Should testing procedures at a field station subsequently prove to be non-compliant, test kits can be accurately reissued, and data adjusted. Equally, if a batch of vaccines proves faulty – perhaps because it wasn't transported at the correct temperature – affected vaccines can easily be recalled and relevant individuals re-vaccinated.

In the U.K., armies of volunteers have been recruited to administer vaccinations: these can be supported with procedural guidance and instant updates relating to different vaccine types or even patients, all delivered to their smartphone by AR.

The everyday smartphone and computer vision, when combined with the humble barcode, have made it possible to safely interact with physical objects and structures. Mobile computer vision yields a new value for logistics companies during pandemic times, enabling couriers to maintain social distancing, keeping staff and customers safe. And as we head towards a post-pandemic world, the transportation and distribution of vaccines will play a vital role in maintaining future population health.

Lorna Wilkinson, Director of Nursing, Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust, outlines the benefits of using mobile computer vision to match patients to a drug or medical appliance by scanning barcodes on vials and patient wristbands. "Positive patient ID is now central to electronic prescribing and medicine administration, electronic bed management system, medical devices and equipment tracking – barcode scanning is central to all of these," she says.

The pandemic has catapulted us all, overnight, into a future world where digital has become central to every interaction. As management consultant McKinsey notes, "Every company knows how to pilot new digital initiatives in "normal" times, but few do so at the scale and speed required by the Covid-19 crisis". The proposition of scanning from smartphones speaks to the healthcare and logistics sector – perhaps more than any other. For example, the NHS introduced a digital vaccine passport through the NHS app by authenticating a person's Covid-19 test status and their vaccination records, required when traveling internationally. The use of technology is vital in helping the U.K. government stay on track with reaching vaccination targets and plans to lift restrictions.

One thing is clear; mobile computer vision has proven benefits of traceability, efficiency, and rapid scaling, which are transferable and pertinent to the global and pressing challenge of vaccination. There is no doubt that technology has been a critical enabler in offering medics and logistics workers a safe way to navigate a healthier future.

Christian Floerkemeier, VP Product, CTO and co-founder, Scandit 

Christian Floerkemeier, CTO at Scandit.