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Quectel helps Controlant and Pfizer-BioNTech ensure safe global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines

When Pfizer and BioNTech signed a letter of intent in March 2020 to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, there was still a lot to learn about the novel coronavirus, including how it spread and how it could be thwarted. But one aspect was certain from the very beginning: the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would have to be transported at unprecedented temperatures: between -90°C and -60°C (-130°F to -76°F).

“We knew we’d need to ship a vaccine at -75°C, which we had never done before,” says Danny Hendrikse, Pfizer vice president of intercompany operations. To meet that demanding requirement, Pfizer developed a special thermal shipping box. Then it turned to Controlant, whose Cold Chain as a Service® solution was key for meeting the stringent requirements. “We are able to deliver that vaccine at a success rate of 99.998%, which is unheard of in the industry,” Hendrikse says.

Anytime, anywhere connectivity critical to safe distribution of COVID-19 vaccine

IoT devices added to each thermal shipping box are a key part of Controlant’s monitoring solution for Pfizer. These devices feed temperature data in real time to Pfizer’s existing control tower system for monitoring the status of vaccines throughout shipment. This enables Pfizer to instantly identify emerging problems so they can be quickly addressed en route, thus saving vaccines that save lives. To ensure that its IoT devices always have a reliable, secure connection to Pfizer’s control tower, Controlant selected Quectel’s EG25-G 4G/LTE module. Several features make the EG25-G ideal for demanding cold chain applications such as vaccine transport:

  • The EG25-G supports all the LTE, UMTS, HSPA+, EDGE, GPRS, and GSM bands used worldwide. This flexibility ensures that it can always find a network to connect to — even in remote areas where 2G or 3G networks are often still in use.
  • Multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) smart antenna technology helps ensure consistently reliable connectivity even in challenging RF environments. For example, when the vehicle is in an urban concrete canyon, the EG25-G can use MIMO to transform multipath signals from a problem into an opportunity to maintain a connection.
  • By utilizing the EG25-G module, Pfizer’s control tower can consistently access the necessary data to accurately determine the whereabouts of a shipping box in virtually any location worldwide. Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is extremely sensitive to temperature variations, the EG25-G module is designed to withstand harsh conditions, operating reliably even in extreme temperatures ranging from -40°C to +85°C.

Meeting unprecedented cold chain requirements

Controlant selected the EG25-G for several key reasons. First, no other IoT module on the market could meet all its demanding technology requirements, such as pinpoint positioning, even when GNSS is unavailable, and global, multi-network connectivity. Secondly, Quectel was able to provide key support services such as reviewing Controlant’s design for integrating the EG25-G into its IoT device module. Finally, Quectel and component suppliers such as Qorvo also were able to ramp up production to meet Controlant’s demanding timeline. Teamwork was key.

“Top management from Quectel, Controlant, and Pfizer met regularly over the course of 12 months to ensure that over 1.6 million modules were delivered on schedule to enable the mission to ship vaccines,” says Norbert Muhrer, President and CSO, Quectel. “Quectel committed to meeting Controlant’s and Pfizer’s requirements, and we made good on that promise.” That teamwork was critical, given the once-in-a-lifetime circumstances of COVID-19 global supply chain disruption, making it difficult to source components and meet production schedules.

“Quectel was a critical link in the chain for Controlant and Pfizer-BioNTech to be able to ensure safe global distribution of COVID-19 vaccines,” says Ranald Haig, VP Sales, Controlant. “In the IoT world, people often talk about ‘mission-critical’ applications,” Muhrer says. “But this was the ultimate mission-critical application, with literally billions of lives at stake. We’re honored and humbled to have played a part in ensuring that over 700 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were quickly, safely, and efficiently delivered around the world.”