Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the public has learned about a wide variety of medical tools and technologies used to prevent, test for, and treat the virus. From ventilators and N95 masks, to test kits using microfluidics and modified DNA sequencing methods, there has been a steady stream of tools put in the spotlight that medical professionals and businesses have been using to fight this terrible pandemic. However, a remarkably simple piece of technology has flown under the radar despite the immense benefit it provides to healthcare professionals and business owners. Although not commonly thought of as a medical tool, data loggers are having a major impact on our fight against COVID-19.

Data loggers are monitoring devices that use a wide variety of sensors to measure everything from temperature to illuminance. Their purpose is to actively measure and monitor environments to ensure that the space or products are kept within specific data ranges, and then alerting users if the environment falls outside of those ranges to avoid damage. For instance, data loggers are most often used in the food service industry to monitor food in refrigerated storage units or in transit during delivery.

One specific type of data logger outfitted with a CO2 sensor has been used since the beginning of the pandemic to monitor control of space ventilation. By understanding how CO2 concentration affects the potential for accelerated transmission of COVID-19, business owners and property managers can use CO2 loggers to monitor capacity in an office space, grocery store, or any other indoor area. This helps to reduce the potential for super-spreader events where a space is overcrowded in relation to the risk of transmission. The Japanese government has already begun outlining a plan  to purchase CO2 data loggers as part of its safety and economic recovery plan.

Data loggers combined with a thermocouple sensor can measure temperatures down to –199 °C.

Understanding the use of temperature data loggers and how they contribute to the fight against this pandemic is also critical now that vaccines from drug makers Pfizer and Moderna have been approved for distribution to the public. Both vaccines come with very precise cold storage requirements. Pfizer says that its vaccine must be stored at –70 °C, while the Moderna vaccine must be stored at –20 °C. If either of the vaccine’s environmental storage conditions fall too far outside of these temperatures, they can no longer be used. Because there’s a limited supply of the potentially lifesaving vaccines to begin with, it’s critical that the shipping and logistics are carried out as near flawlessly as possible.

In fact, Reuters recently reported  that more than half of other various types of vaccines go to waste globally every year because of temperature control, logistics, and shipment-related issues. The publication also reported an example of the challenges related to shipping and storage when a big delivery company experienced a problem related to a handful of trays bound for California and Alabama. Pfizer’s dry-ice cooled containers hit –92 °C (–197.6 °F) in transit, which was too cold, resulting in waste.

The reason for these extreme cold storage requirements is due to the unique and innovative way these vaccines were developed. According to researcher Margaret Liu, both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines use a new approach to unlock the body's immune defenses. The approach uses messenger RNA, or mRNA, to turn a patient's cells into factories that make one particular coronavirus protein. Vaccines made from mRNA can be made much faster than older vaccines could, explains Liu. The problem is that mRNA is “really easily destroyed, and that's because there are many, many enzymes that will just break it apart.”

Because every vaccine has unique requirements, different approaches to data monitoring can be used. Data loggers combined with a thermocouple sensor, which can measure temperatures down to –199 °C, can be used alongside a thermal buffer to accurately measure the internal temperature of the Pfizer vaccine. While a thermistor temperature sensor with a thermal buffer can be used to measure the less extreme temperatures necessary to store the Moderna vaccine.

An important attribute that can be found in the latest data logger designs is the ability to automatically upload to a cloud storage solution. This not only makes the readings available in near real time, but also allows the data to be shared with all interested parties. This keeps everyone involved with the transport and distribution of the vaccine fully informed on a timely basis as to the conditions the vaccine is experiencing.

Transporting and storing COVID-19 vaccines is a heavy lift for our nation’s medical supply chain, and using data loggers is a critically important technology to aid in the process. Those who manage a public or commercial space can also use a CO2 data logger to ensure a safe capacity while we wait for wider distribution of the vaccine. A data logger with the correct sensors and alert functionality can significantly reduce any chance of damaging the lifesaving vaccines that the public so desperately needs.

This article was written by Steve Knuth, president, TandD U.S. LLC .