The first shipments of Pfizer’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines arrived at health systems across the U.S. this month, a significant milestone in the fight against a pandemic that has infected and killed millions of people. But vaccine distribution and administration is a major logistical challenge, not least because both vaccines require cold storage. Nevertheless, Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. public-private COVID-19 treatment partnership, optimistically aims to vaccinate tens of millions of people by year’s end.
Some stakeholders are turning to AI for help, particularly robotic process automation, or RPA — software that emulates the actions of humans interacting with systems. RPA could bolster efficiency in hospitals and supply chains overwhelmed by the challenges of COVID-19 vaccine management.
For example, San Jose-based Automation Anywhere, which last year raised $290 million in venture capital at a $6.8 billion valuation, says it is working with a pharmaceutical company in Europe to implement 25 bots and automate 65 processes. According to Dr. Yan Chow, global health care industry leader at Automation Anywhere, the project lead realized RPA could help researchers and labs run more efficiently to accelerate research and approval of vaccines by augmenting reporting processes.
“Intelligent automation will play a key role in streamlining the complicated logistics required for the first doses of vaccines to reach our most vulnerable populations,” Chow told VentureBeat via email. “As vaccine enrollment opens to the public, bots can automate the enrollment process — auto-populating registration forms to help reduce attrition.”
On the transportation and allotment side of the vaccine distribution challenge, firms including Itelligence Benelux, a SAP partner based in the Netherlands, say RPA could have a significant role to play. At a recent SAP hackathon, Itelligence proposed combining RPA with internet-connected sensor tags that would continuously measure the temperature of vaccine batches and send the data via Bluetooth to a smartphone. A sensor app would receive the data and forward it to a cloud platform, which would add batch and product information, as well as temperature thresholds and relevant delivery details. Another app would then check the incoming sensor values against predefined thresholds, like the temperature limit, and kickstart one or more RPA bots.
In Itelligence’s blueprint, which won the hackathon, a warning limit might trigger text messages and emails to inform truck drivers and transport companies about batch risks. A spoil limit, which would come into play when the vaccine could no longer be saved, might trigger multiple bots for a broader set of actions, like taking the batch out of the cold chain, creating a replacement order, and initiating a secondary order to return the spoiled vaccines to the supplier. RPA would also help create the necessary insurance documents and send them to the relevant carriers.
“Conventional data loggers — small devices that normally travel with the shipped batches of goods — should ensure safety. However, they have a significant disadvantage: They report problems very late. Namely, when the recipient reads the data after the batch has arrived, i.e. when it is already spoiled,” Danny Groothuis, one of the creators of the blueprint, wrote in a blog post. “As this scenario shows, the smart combination of IoT devices and SAP Intelligent Robotic Process Automation bots can reduce a lot of repetitive and tedious work and provide considerably more security and efficiency to cold chain management.”
Once the vaccines arrive at the point of care, stakeholders must contend with another set of challenges: tracking which patients have — and have not — received them. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines must be taken in two doses three to four weeks apart, and health systems are responsible for maintaining their own tracking databases or opting for prebuilt state and federal solutions.
Olive, a Columbus-based health care automation startup, has a framework that’s being adapted for this purpose. Using a combination of computer vision and RPA, Olive told TechRepublic its tools have supported COVID-19 testing operations in health systems by automating manual data entry. In the next phase of its work, the company says it will track which frontline workers receive the vaccine and when, something it expects will reduce administration time and help monitor vaccine recipients for side effects while providing data to government regulators.
Automation Anywhere has already deployed an RPA-based vaccine-tracking solution, albeit for a different vaccine. Earlier this month, the company announced a collaboration with Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, a teaching hospital in the U.K., to launch a flu-reporting bot that tracks vaccinations among its more than 14,000 employees. Automation Anywhere says the bot has captured updates for more than 10,000 staff vaccinations and saved nearly three months of cumulative admin time. If the rollout continues to go smoothly, Newcastle Upon Tyne Hospitals says it might consider extending the technology to support local “test and trace” processes and report on COVID-19 vaccinations.
“Bots will play an important role in ensuring pharmacovigilance. If a person who received the COVID-19 vaccine has an adverse effect, bots can automatically handle complaints associated with the new vaccine and automate the adverse event process,” Automation Anywhere life sciences global lead Catherine Calarco told VentureBeat. “For example, within a month of the vaccine being distributed — someone has issues related to the vaccine and contacts their physician and the pharma company. It’s important to rapidly manage these field events and quickly see any emerging trends. Automation increases accuracy and reduces cycle time for case management, resulting in better patient care.”
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