Dec 16, 2020 - Technology

Tech's hidden hand in the vaccine rollout

Illustration of a pixelated vaccine syringe

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Technology companies including IBM, Oracle, and Salesforce are working with governments and health agencies to manage the massive task of rapidly distributing the COVID-19 vaccines.

Why it matters: It's critical to make sure the limited supply of vaccines is distributed equitably and without wasting precious doses.

Driving the news:

  • Salesforce has a number of efforts to help agencies distributing the vaccine. Internationally, it is working with Gavi to help that global vaccine agency with its project to equitably distribute the vaccine in 190 countries. Closer to home, Salesforce is part of a project that consultant MTX built for the city of Chicago to manage its vaccine distribution, and which the consultant is now looking to sell to other local governments.
  • Oracle donated a national electronic health record database and public health management applications to the federal government that can be used to detail who has been vaccinated and track any potential side effects. The data can also be used in aggregate so public officials can see at a glance where people have been vaccinated. Oracle is also working with the Tony Blair Institute to bring similar systems to Africa.
  • IBM is offering up a range of technologies to help governments and private companies, including supply chain management software as well as an open blockchain-based approach to record and authenticate the temperature and handling of each vaccine dose, including batch- and lot-level information.
  • Microsoft is working with a range of partners on vaccine management efforts, including consultancy Ernst and Young, which is tapping Microsoft's cloud and business services.
  • Google said its cloud unit has extended its pandemic response to help with vaccine intelligence and is working alongside partners to deploy vaccine management solutions with state and local governments.

The big picture: For tech, it's both a business opportunity and a chance for companies to tie themselves to a critical societal need.

Yes, but: Tech could also be positioning itself for blame if there are hiccups in these systems. Remember the rollout of

Between the lines: What's tricky is there are so many players involved in getting the vaccine to the population, including the pharmaceutical companies, shippers like UPS and FedEx, state governments, local governments, hospitals, drugstore chains and individual providers.

  • There isn't going to be a single supply chain management system, meaning each of those players will need to build their own capability and share data with other parts of the system.
  • "This supply chain is enormously complex, probably more complex than any I’ve seen — and I worked with the defense industry," IBM VP Tim Paydos told Axios.

The vaccine is going to be in short supply for months, creating huge and competing demand and the need to make sure every available dose reaches someone in need.

  • Risks include everything from cyber and physical attacks to introduction of counterfeit vaccines, diversion of real vaccines to the black market, and mismanagement that leads to spoiled vaccines.
  • Plus, there isn't one vaccine, but rather a number of different ones, each with different requirements in terms of dosing, need for cold storage and other specifics unique to each vaccine.
  • "This is not something you want to be doing with pens and papers and sticky notes," Salesforce chief medical officer Ashwini Zenooz told Axios.

The big picture: Tech companies are doing more than just helping governments and health authorities distribute the vaccine.

  • Google, Facebook and Twitter are working to fight the information battle, posting authoritative information and aiming to clamp down on vaccine misinformation.
  • A number of companies, including IBM and Clear, aim to provide a "digital health pass" to institutions that want to require proof of vaccination, such as airlines, workplaces and schools.
  • Google and Apple still offer their exposure notification technology, which uses smartphone proximity to determine whether you have been in close contact with someone who later tests positive for COVID-19.
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