We are amid the Covid-19 pandemic with over 100M confirmed cases and over 2M deaths till now. It has outgrown as just a health crisis to affecting societies and economies at their core. The majority of countries are facing recession and the global economy has suffered through a shrink of 4.4% in 2020. With no relaxation in the rate of spread of this infection, the world is now waiting for the vaccine to provide immunity against it.
Countries have started rolling out their Covid vaccination phase. The process which would have generally taken years, the medical community around the globe has accomplished in mere months.
Now it is time for another humongous task, to successfully administer the dose to every person. Only a handful of vaccines have been authorized by WHO, which are being developed by only a few countries. The doses have to reach frontline healthcare workers, at-risk groups, and eventually to all people around the world. The job at hand is an immense distribution and logistics challenge and would require a groundbreaking supply chain solution.
Some are hoping that blockchain combined with other technologies could play an essential role to monitor and ensure compliance with the task. It can be used to provide a near real-time and a single integrated view of the vaccination lifecycle by uniting diverse and local vaccination strategies.
What Are the Challenges?
Each step in the life cycle of the Covid vaccination drive starting from the manufacturing of doses at only a handful of places of the world until the successful administration to people at every corner of the world poses challenges of its own.
Each country has to start with forecasting the demand for vaccines. A complete survey to determine where, when and how much of the shots would be required has to be done. According to WHO guidelines, covid vaccination has to be prioritized for frontline workers in the health and social care settings, people over the age of 65, and people who have underlying health conditions that put them at a higher risk of death. The pace of sending vaccines is also prioritized by country risk. Countries under risk of high impact of covid, countries with vulnerable health care systems, countries with vulnerable populations are to be preferred. WHO emphasizes equitable access and distribution of the vaccine to people in all countries because of limited supplies.
Next comes the task of monitoring the distribution network. Each brand of the covid vaccine comes with a specific temperature requirement to ensure desired efficacy. It has to be maintained all the time during storage, transportation, distribution, and when they are in the doctors’ offices, pharmacies, or public health clinics where they’ll be administered. Moderna vaccines require an elaborate cold chain under which vaccines must be stored. It can be stored for at least three months at the temperature of a regular refrigerator. Pfizer’s vaccine must be shipped and stored at -94 Fahrenheit and requires special ultracold freezers. Indian covid vaccines, Bharat Biotech’s COVID-19 vaccine Covaxin and Serum Institute of India’s Covishield require 2-8 °C for storage.
As the demand for vaccines far exceeds its supply, the governments must be ready for the proper storage and transportation facilities to ensure minimum wastage. Cold chain points, walk-in coolers, walk-in freezers, ice-lined refrigerators, and deep freezers have to be used at every phase of the supply chain.
The next challenge is quality assurance. At the manufactures level, it has to be ensured that each batch of vaccine is legitimate and made to the correct standards. Covid vaccines require 2 doses separated by an interval of 28 days. It has to be ensured that the right dose is administered.
Another important aspect of this vaccination drive is the adverse event surveillance. While the vaccines have been tested on tens of thousands of people during clinical trials, there may be side effects or safety issues that only become apparent when millions receive injections. Since no one can predict their long-term effects on the health of people, thus monitoring any unusual side effects or rare complications is crucial. The vaccine makers and government health agencies will need to monitor these people once they receive inoculations.
How Blockchain Technology Can Help?
Like any supply chain, the vaccination process would require to ensure each participant’s accountability. Each one would be having a defined set of roles and functionalities. It should always handle any complications in stock management and accurately predict the requirements, beforehand. It requires accuracy in tracking every vile of doses. The system should be able to identify and point out potential counterfeits making tampering with any process impossible. Different stakeholders of the system should be able to share data irrespective of any regulatory, security, and compliance concerns.
Here, blockchain technology comes to help. Specializing in the ability to track any asset, it is the best technology we have now to manage the covid vaccination process.
Blockchain is a database that provides a transparent source of truth to its participants. It is a decentralized system with no central authorities controlling it. No single authority would be in charge of the data thus avoid anyone taking undue advantage of it for their profit.
Blockchain stores data such that each record is cryptographically linked to previous all records. This makes tampering of data practically difficult avoiding any chance of corrupting vaccination data negligible.
A well-defined read and write access rules in blockchain ensure the trustworthiness of data. You can be well assured that no one unauthorized can make any change to the data. Blockchain can be used to keep full track of every dose in real-time.
It can easily be maintained and used by many different parties—drug manufacturers, courier companies, hospitals and pharmacies, and even various branches of government.
Different Actors in Blockchain-Enabled Vaccine Supply Chain
The main actors in a blockchain-enabled vaccination system are:
- Manufacturers of vaccines
- Distributors and transporters of vaccines
- Medical centers receiving and administering the vaccines
- Individuals that register for vaccination
The compliance of the system is ensured by well-defined smart contracts, which are self-executing contracts between multiple parties containing terms of the agreement. These are deployed on the blockchain. So let’s check that how such a system can work:
- Each beneficiary for vaccination is registered on the blockchain system to prove their identity, thus avoiding any impersonation. Blockchain system ensures to preserve the digital identity of users to avoid any privacy or identity theft issue. All registrations are managed using a smart contract.
- The freezer devices and vaccine lots are registered on the chain. The vaccine lots are assigned to freezing devices, this association is maintained on the chain to enable tracing. Similarly, vaccine lots are associated with the storage units and the linking is stored on the blockchain.
- Vaccine distribution chain monitoring is achieved using smart contracts that continuously evaluate the data received from sensors deployed on storage units or attached to the transportation freezers.
- Each vaccine manufacturer registers a set of rules for the safe distribution and storage of vaccine batches. These rules are encoded in smart contracts associated with specific IoT devices (sensors) as rules. Ex. Pfizer’s vaccine must always be shipped and stored at -94 Fahrenheit.
- During transportation and storage, these sensors periodically send vaccine identifiers and the recorded temperature data to the blockchain. As the value reaches the blockchain, it triggers the computation of the smart contract rules defined validating or invalidating the transportation conditions. Furthermore, the time limit imposed by the vaccine issuer regarding the transportation/storage may be validated.
- Before vaccination, on-chain identity verification of the beneficiaries is done by the doctor or any health practitioner. Individuals provide their digital identity and it is verified against the registration data stored on the blockchain.
- Vaccine QR Code is scanned to extract relevant vaccine information stored on the blockchain, such as the vaccine details and transportation conditions. Here, doctors can ensure that the vaccine is safe to be administered.
- After vaccination, the vaccine is marked on the blockchain as being administered to a beneficiary. This ensures the accountability of each vile. Both the beneficiary and the doctor must acknowledge this transaction. When both agree, the vaccine lot size is decremented and the association between the beneficiary and the vaccine lot is registered.
- Any beneficiary that has received a vaccine can register feedback and the eventual side effects encountered on the blockchain.
Such a blockchain system offers:
- Data immutability, transparency, and correctness of beneficiary registration.
- Tracking and monitoring of vaccine transportation and distribution.
- Tracking vaccine administration.
- Recording of any side effects or complications.
Who Are Using These Solutions?
- Few British hospitals are using blockchain technology to keep tabs on the storage and supply of temperature-sensitive COVID-19 vaccines.
- IBM has developed a solution called IBM Health Pass, which would use blockchain to verify a person’s COVID-19 status.
- The National Health Service facilities in England are using tech developed by U.K. firm Everywhere to monitor vaccines in real-time and the U.S. organization Hedera Hashgraph using blockchain consortiums.
- An Indian startup, StaTwig is also using blockchain solutions to track every dose of vaccine from manufacturer to consumer. It is proposed to be used by the Telangana government in India.
Blockchain integrated with IoT technology has marked a remarkable presence in many supply chain industries. It is yet to make a significant difference in the Covid-19 vaccination process.
To make that happen, governments, pharmaceuticals, IT, and logistics companies have to come forward to collectively and timely embrace this promising technology to improve the supply-chain operations and see how it exponentially increases transparency between them and the vulnerable populations.