Vaccines And RFID: 4 Things To Know

The long and intricate nature of medical logistics lies between the vaccine manufacturer and the patient. The proper delivery of vaccines from the manufacturing facility to the hospital or clinic, static or mobile, can mean the difference in saving lives. Imagine if something unfortunate were to occur to the already-tight vaccine supply during transit.

Such a dilemma puts radio frequency identification (RFID) technology at a prime opportunity to facilitate vaccine logistics. This application doesn’t refer to the popular yet controversial belief of injecting microchips with the vaccine, but instead RFID-ready vaccine labels. Experts believe the technology offers many advantages, from easy tracking to mitigating vaccine fraud.

RFID labeling is rapidly becoming a norm in the industry, with drug manufacturers collaborating with companies specializing in this technology. You can learn more here about one example, which has the potential to solve plenty of issues plaguing medical inventories. However, end-users planning to adopt this approach should know a few things first.

1. Similar To A Barcode

RFID-ready labels on vaccines, syringes, and other medical kits operate in the same fashion as barcodes on food and beverage items in a supermarket. Both systems involve a unique code and a scanner to retrieve data on the item in question. Whereas a barcode on a pack of gum or bottle of soda reveals its price, RFID labels on vaccines show beyond-use dates and other pertinent information.

However, their similarities end there. RFID labels can scan multiple items at once, resist subzero storage conditions, and be more difficult to counterfeit. These advantages work for vaccines such as COVID shots, requiring controlled climates as low as minus 70oF to maintain efficacy. Some can survive in warmer temperatures but not as long (up to a month in storage).

Another advantage is that RFID scanners, whether dedicated or mobile apps, don’t require a line of sight. Unlike barcodes needing scanners to see the whole label, RFID uses radio waves to see the data. Depending on the frequency range in use, scanners can pick up these tags from ranges of up to 20 feet. Vaccine tagging typically uses high-frequency RFID, with a range of three feet.

2. ISO-Compliant Tagging

Businesses understand the importance of carrying International Organization for Standardization (ISO) certification. This document is proof that a company or organization, profit or nonprofit, operates on a structure that complies with globally recognized standards. On the downside, though, receiving an ISO certification isn’t as easy as one might imagine.

Nevertheless, adopting RFID tags can bring the benefit of employing ISO-compliant technology. Two ISO standards generally serve as the bases for these tags: 

  • ISO/IEC 15693 – This standard lays out guidelines for ISO-compliant, high-frequency RFID vicinity cards, which scanners can pick up from a distance. One such requirement is the use of the industrial, scientific, and medical frequency of 13.56 MHz, with a detectable range between 1.0 and 1.5 meters. 
  • ISO/IEC 14443 – This standard outlines the requirements for ISO-compliant near-field communication (NFC) tags or high-frequency RFID tags utilizing NFC protocols. It’s primarily concerned with NFC-enabled mobile devices for scanning or tagging vaccines, syringes, and other items.

Note that using ISO-compliant technology doesn’t automatically grant ISO certification. However, doing so instills companies and organizations with confidence, knowing that they’re utilizing reliable solutions. Besides, reliability is a crucial asset in saving lives in the pharmaceutical industry.

3. The Cost Barrier

The efficiency and reliability of RFID labels in the healthcare sector come at a steep premium. In an analysis conducted at Florida Gulf Coast University, researchers said that the cost of fielding RFID labeling systems remains a barrier to widespread application. The price range for a single tag can range between USD$0.04 and USD$50; scanners can go up to USD$3,000 per unit.

Despite case studies recording returns on investment of over 300%, such figures might not be reflected in an environment that doesn’t favor RFID technology. The same analysis stressed that ‘false reads’ stemming from interference from metallic and electromagnetic sources can negate its cost-effectiveness. These interferences aren’t uncommon in a medical setting.

In light of this, experts highly advise implementing RFID tagging to a limited scope instead of rolling it out organization-wide. It allows close monitoring of the system for limitations that can be addressed before full implementation. The test run can also help determine the type of system the organization needs, reducing rollout costs.

4. Technology Still In Infancy

RFID has been in use for decades, with one of the first being a ‘listening device’ in the guise of a ceremonial seal made after World War II. It wasn’t until 1983 that the technology would get its name from a patent filed by Charles Walton. Still, for its long history, the technology remains in its infancy, constrained by limitations explained earlier.

Apart from its vulnerability to metallic and electromagnetic interference, experts believe privacy is an aspect that requires significant research and development. Consumer rights advocates have raised concerns over the years about the technology’s potential for close tracking and profiling. Future development should invest in implementing procedures like security key randomization. 

The technology also needs to improve its resistance to interference, which can come from the dozens of medical devices hospitals and clinics have at their disposal. Experts say that extensive site assessment and testing should precede any endeavor to adopt RFID tagging. The industry has yet to develop comprehensive measures to help systems withstand interference.

Key Takeaways

RFID labels have the potential to streamline processes, especially in overburdened healthcare systems like what the United States currently has. The potential cost savings it brings through efficient inventory management and error risk reduction can be passed to the patient. The current timeline is possibly ideal for considering adopting such technology.

That said, businesses and organizations planning to do so should take note of these key caveats before pursuing full implementation. The potential for RFID tagging is present, but there’s still room for improvement, just like any other novel technology introduced in the past. In this case, waiting for the technology to mature is a welcome and viable option.


Elizabeth Willett (MA)
Elizabeth Willett (MA)
Elizabeth Willett has an M.A in health and fitness, is an experienced trainer, and enjoys teaching children about healthy eating habits. She loves to cook nutritious meals for her family.


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