[Column] Titilayo Adewumi: As West Africa starts vaccine rollout, what role should technology play?
After more than a year of lockdowns and disruption caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic, African countries are preparing for the most ambitious vaccine rollout in human history.
All eyes are now on the ability of countries to secure, import and distribute the vaccines effectively. This will require investment into local supply chains and a concerted effort by governments and health organisations to build trust with local populations to ensure every person that needs a vaccine is able to receive one.
In late February, Ghana became the first country in the world to receive a shipment of vaccines from the Covax initiative when 600 000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine arrived. Telco operator MTN Group donated a further 165 000 doses and the Indian government 50 000 more, but the country will need significantly more to adequately cover its 31 million citizens.
In early March, Nigeria followed when it received 3.9 million doses. The country plans to vaccinate 40% of its citizens by the end of 2021, and 70% by the end of 2022. An e-registration portal has been made available where all persons 18 years and older are able to register in the government’s attempt at an efficient and orderly scheduling of vaccination when more doses are available in the country.
However, immense challenges remain to sufficiently vaccinate the country's more than 200 million citizens. In fact, the entire region has much work to do to build trust, enhance local and regional supply chains, effectively engage citizens and implement an effective vaccination rollout.
Building trust through citizen engagement, supply chain enhancements
Details are still scarce around how precisely the vaccine rollout will be implemented in West Africa. A recent study found high levels of hesitancy and low levels of trust in the vaccination plans of five West African countries: only 31% of respondents said they trust their government 'somewhat' or 'a lot' to ensure the vaccine is safe before it is offered to citizens.
Governments need high participation rates from citizens if their vaccine rollouts are to be successful. This requires that they increase trust with citizens by understanding citizen sentiment throughout the rollout and then quickly respond to and manage any issues that arise.
The scale of governments' vaccination rollouts is unprecedented, which means that current systems and processes are too slow and inflexible to facilitate the vaccination rollout at scale. When one considers the complexities of phased rollouts, multiple doses, and reporting, it is essential that governments leverage technology to streamline data collection, transfer and analysis to speed up rollouts.
At a supply chain level, the distribution and administration of vaccines at the scale of COVID-19 is a monumental challenge. There is much at stake because disruptions in the supply chain can prevent the delivery of the vaccine and further impact public trust.
Delays are paid for with human lives and push out the prospect of herd immunity. Reacting quickly to unexpected interruptions is key and is only possible if the entire supply chain, from procurement to production and delivery, is managed end-to-end.
According to the World Health Organisation's Vaccine Introduction Readiness Assessment Tool, African countries have an overall score of only 33% preparedness for rolling out vaccines to their populations.
Bolstering the supply chain and building trust with citizens will be crucial to the effective vaccination of populations in the West Africa region.
How tech can support vaccine rollout in West Africa
Emerging, emerged and established technologies all have a role to play in the region’s efforts at vaccination. For example, trying to identify which people require vaccines with some attempt at prioritisation could leverage data, data mining, data science and patient segmentation based on various demographic, risk profiling and patient history information.
To track vaccine distribution across the region, a combination of technologies including blockchain, analytics, integrated scanners, location tracking tags and mobile apps could provide a framework to show relevant subsets of information to different supply chain stakeholders.
In terms of patient engagement, self-service appointment booking, customer experience platforms and patient feedback capture using apps and non-contact in-clinic kiosks can help to determine how well practitioners are fulfilling their duty. Similar platforms can be leveraged to focus on employee experience, offering insight into the mental wellbeing of frontline healthcare practitioners and reducing the risk of burnout.
Looking ahead, machine learning and streaming analytics could help identify irregular patterns in data that talk to issues within procurement, production, logistics or financial audits. IoT, 5G, LoRa (Long Range networks) and edge computing allows a vast array of use cases to be realised, where sensors can determine the conditions in which stock is being made, stored or shipped, and to allow critical response to be actioned before major incidents arise.
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced unprecedented challenges to the world, and West Africa is no exception. As the region readies itself for the vital process of vaccine distribution, it is critical that there are no unwarranted delays or disruptions. This will also give citizens the confidence that the medicines they are getting are safe and efficient. Technology can play a valuable supporting role to ensure West Africa’s vaccine rollout is a success.