The COVID-19 vaccine rollout poses a complex geospatial challenge for the Australian Government in ensuring vaccine doses arrive where and when they’re needed – and that they remain viable.

Geospatial technology expert, Mina Mikhail says GIS will be crucial for planning the distribution of the vaccine and providing the community with transparency over the distribution process. An experienced Pharmacist who previously worked with Pfizer, Mikhail understands the complex processes involved in the transportation and dissemination of vaccines.

He sat down with GIS Directions podcast host Wayne Lee-Archer to answer questions on how GIS could be used to plan distribution, track vaccine doses once they arrive in Australia, and provide transparency for healthcare workers and the general public.

Wayne Lee-Archer: Millions of doses of both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines have been purchased for the Australian population. Once these doses arrive, what are some of the storage requirements to ensure they remain viable?

Mina Mikhail: Both vaccine candidates must be kept at a very low temperature – up to minus 70 degrees celsius. If they're not kept at that very low temperature, they will break apart and no longer be viable.

As a result, it's important authorities control the temperature from the time when they leave the manufacturer to the time they arrive at the distribution centres, and from the distribution centres to the vaccination centres and from there until they are administered to patients. This is why having an accurate and comprehensive geographic perspective to the situation is vital.

Wayne Lee-Archer: Completely agree with you Mina... We've even heard the vaccine distribution be termed as ‘the cold chain’ and there’s a lot of discussion around how transportation organisations will handle it. What considerations are there from a geographic point of view when we need to keep things cold?

Mina Mikhail: To start off with, the actual boxes in which the vaccines are stored have thermal GPS-enabled sensors that will track the location and temperature of the COVID-19 vaccines. Those special boxes and GPS sensors are good because they allow the manufacturing companies to start shipping the vaccines straight away after manufacturing, without having to consider any specialised shipping requirements.

The other thing is, the companies will deliver the vaccines to the distribution centres, but they will not deliver them direct to the vaccination centres. The real challenge is transportation from the distribution centres to the vaccination centres.

First, we need to have distribution centres that can hold vaccines at very low temperatures and if they don’t, we’ll have to keep them in the boxes. The boxes can only keep the vaccine at the correct temperature for 15 to 20 days and once they arrive at the vaccination centre, they can be kept in the fridge for a maximum of five days.

Considering Australia is such a geographically large country, with many inland towns spread hundreds of kilometres apart, these vaccines will have to travel those long distances as quickly as possible. We also need to ensure that the supply sent to each vaccination centre is equal to the true demand – otherwise we’ll have a lot of wastage. Using spatial technology and location-based analytics is key to solving these geographic challenges.

Looking to explore how GIS technology can support the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out? Call 1800 870 750 or email to arrange a time to speak in-depth with one of our specialists.

Wayne Lee-Archer: So the doses will be divided up based on population data, what else do we need to think about when distributing amongst the vaccination centres?

Mina Mikhail: We need to ensure that the process for sending doses to the vaccination centres is adaptable if circumstances change.

Maybe we send 1 million doses to distribution centre X, but then we can identify another distribution centre that has a higher demand – we will need to transfer the vaccines from one distribution centre to another, but we need to be aware of where all these doses are at any given time.

Likewise, if we send 1,000 doses to a rural centre, do we actually have 1,000 people to be vaccinated? If the answer is yes, will they be able to get the second dose of the same vaccine at that location?

This is where GIS technology could help as it allows us to have a centralised information source showing real-time information on where all the vaccine doses are and this data can be updated in real-time if any doses need to be moved.

Wayne Lee-Archer: You mentioned that in the original shipment boxes, the temperature could be tracked. Are we going to have the luxury of seeing that right to the point of delivery – perhaps with a massive network of IOT sensors?

Mina Mikhail: From when they arrive at the distribution centre, we need to know that the temperature is maintained while they’re in storage and when transported around the country.

This is something that would need to be discussed with the manufacturers themselves. As it stands, they are responsible for delivering the vaccine doses to the government in the right form, at the right temperature and making sure the doses are viable up until that point.

After they’re delivered, the government takes over the vaccines. The distribution centres that are monitored or controlled by the government are then responsible for tracking and tracing. This means the information available on a particular vaccine batch may change depending on who is handling it at any one time.

Wayne Lee-Archer: How do we go about identifying who should get the vaccine, where they are and how many doses need to be in those localities?

Mina Mikhail: The government has complex plans in place to ensure the vaccine is distributed to where it's needed most. Healthcare workers will be prioritised because they are the first line of defence. The high-risk groups will be next – adults aged 65 and older.

Overlaying demographic data on a map allows us to see where these people are located across our country and focus the distribution there.

As I mentioned, the government already have a strategy planned out around these high-risk populations against the number of purchased vaccines but what if during this process we identify a new hotspot? Do we need to start vaccinating people at this hotspot? If we look back at what happened in Melbourne, if we had the vaccine back then, I believe that all the vaccine doses and efforts would have been directed to vaccinate people in Melbourne.

If we have real-time monitoring of where the vaccines are, demographic data on who needs the vaccines, and we also have the infection maps, we can put that together to visualise location-based data on the demand. We can then match that with a supply – this will be helpful for the Australian people to understand the process and for the government as well.

Wayne Lee-Archer: It sounds like it could be a cyclic process whereby you select distribution and vaccination centres the initially based on the locations of frontline workers and high-risk populations but then as hotspots emerge, the need for doses would migrate to different areas of the country.

We might find that we are suddenly dealing with an outbreak in a rural area – do we have to just engineer this as it goes to ensure the vaccine doses stay close to people who need them?

Mina Mikhail: That's definitely something to be considered, particularly in a country like Australia where we’re so widely distributed geographically.

If one of the criteria for choosing a centre is accessibility, then as we move out of the urban communities, it's going to get harder to get a good measure of that. Is it reasonable to have a 2-hour drive time for populations to access the vaccine? Definitely not in the cities but it’s a different story for rural areas.

That makes it a really spatial problem and something where the kind of capabilities we have with GIS would be very useful to figure out the ‘reach’ of a vaccination centre.

We've got a lot of tools available to us such as Drive-Time polygons and planning tools for site selection to actually match up that supply and demand.

We also may have problems with rural communities where you have only one pharmacy serving 1,500 people. What happens if this pharmacy ran out of vaccine doses? Do people have to go to the next nearest town? Or do we send them more vaccines? All these questions need to be mapped and scenario-based testing undertaken to ensure we're prepared.

Wayne Lee-Archer: On top of the logistics involved with distribution – what do we have to think about with regards to the second dose?

Mina Mikhail: With some vaccine candidates you get the second shot after 21 days, and others will be after 28 days. We may end up eventually having four or five different brands of vaccines. We need to make sure that every person gets the second dose of the same vaccine. This will be complex to manage without a central data source.

We need to make sure that every person gets the second dose of the same vaccine. If we use the usual tracking systems – such as excel sheets and legacy software – that information is going to get lost. We need live maps and real-time monitoring.

Wayne Lee-Archer: Should we have started mapping out these distribution plans already so we can hit the ground running when the vaccine arrives on our shores?

Mina Mikhail: Yes, we need to do this now to make sure we can deliver the vaccines to the right people at the right time.

Around the world, we’ve seen how GIS technology has been crucial for tracking cases and we have GIS professionals who are looking at aspects of vaccine distribution but we need to figure out how to combine our efforts into a well-orchestrated, consolidated approach so that it doesn't end up being a bunch of useful, but disparate pieces of data.

To learn more about how GIS can help with vaccine distribution, call 1800 870 750 or email a specialist.

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