In March 2020, countries around the world were forced into lockdown by a global pandemic that fundamentally restructured the way we live and do business. Almost a year to date, we are lucky to be at the point where multiple vaccines have been approved and administered to the public. Alas, vaccinating the global population against COVID-19 has proved to be one of the biggest trials that humanity has ever faced, both with unique distribution and logistical challenges.
At the moment, there are multiple different COVID-19 vaccines that have been authorized and recommended, with others that are in an advanced stage of development. While they all been developed with the same goal in mind, there are substantial differences between the jabs from their composition and reported effectiveness, to their price and ease of conservation, and distribution obligations. For instance, some vaccines are incredibly time and temperature-sensitive, requiring a life of 5-8 days only with temperatures as low as -75C, whereas others can be maintained stable for 30 days at a temperature between 2C and 8C. Needless to say, the logistics and operations of selling, storing, shipping, and administering each of these vaccines is incredibly time-consuming and overwhelmingly manual, only increasing the burden when one administrator must manage large purchase order quantities of 2 or more different COVID-19 vaccines.
With particular reference to the distribution of the vaccine, a few challenges must be noted. Namely;
- Demand Forecasting – the total quantity required for shipment
- Supply Chain Management – How it should be sent to purchases and distributed once arrived to host countries
- Quality Assurance - How and by whom it should be administered, and with what specific procedure to ensure appropriate provision
- Monitor and Mitigation – How people who have received the vaccine should be monitored, particularly where potential collateral effects may rise
With this in mind, it is no surprise that governments and enterprises around the world are exploring solutions that can ease the general population back to a sense of normalcy in an expedited fashion such as immunity passports or immunization certificates. Particularly, the mitigation of key above-mentioned challenges has relied on exploring innovative solutions by leveraging emerging technologies such as the combined uses of artificial intelligence, machine learning, the internet of things, and distributed ledger or blockchain technologies. In fact, such a grand and pressing issue has in some cases pushed cutting-edge digital transformation out of necessity, especially in terms of blockchain and distributed ledger technology (DLT) implementations as to be further explored.
Current Applications of Blockchain/DLT in COVID-19 Vaccinations
Currently, there are a variety of tangible applications of blockchain and DLT technology-based solutions to streamline COVID-19 vaccination rollouts.In the UK, the NHS has leveraged blockchain to monitor the coronavirus vaccine’s cold chain. The digital platform pioneered by Hedera Hashgraph and in usage by South Warwickshire facilities provides a tamperproof record of vaccine temperatures as a method of monitoring vaccine’s temperature while in cold storage, complemented by Everyware’s software temperature monitoring sensors which combined allows stakeholders to view and track temperatures around the clock in real-time. This has been a critical innovation, as the temperatures of vaccines must be closely monitored and kept at specific below freezing temperatures in order to be effective. In fact, in Florida, over 1000 doses of the vaccine were destroyed when the temperature was not properly monitored. The system implemented by the NHS not only keeps on-chain immutable records of the vaccine temperature throughout the entire lifecycle but allows workers to pick up on inconsistencies or irregularities with the storage. At the same time, the system allows the NHS to have a second quality assurance metric, as issuers can cross-reference information from their centralized private database with on-chain data recorded on the public ledger to ensure that refrigerators have been kept appropriately cold for temperature-sensitive vaccines. With stringent requirements in temperature and time/days of storage (Pfizer for example can only last at two-to-eight degree Celsius conditions for up to five days), this system not only allows for healthcare workers and vaccine recipients to have peace of mind but can equally be used to ease logistical issues particular in shipping and holding across the supply chain. In this case, as explained by Everyware “The benefits of an immutable ledger to verify the validity of data as close to the source as possible has a positive effect on the accuracy of downstream analytics, where any error in source data would be magnified in output datasets”.
Elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Cyprus, operators have leveraged blockchain to develop immunity passports for key essential workers. The Mediterranean Hospital of Cyprus has vaccinated 100 doctors and nurses against Covbid-19 using a blockchain-based mobile app to certify and record the immunizations. Backed by the VechainThor blockchain, the hospital has benefited by creating vaccine passports that can act as a single and immutable source of truth, claiming that it not only brings value, versatility, and convenience for the return to normalcy but simultaneously digitizes the healthcare industry at an unprecedented rate. Cyprus is not alone in this view, with many countries including the UK opting for a version of immunity passports, a blockchain-based immunity passport stands to offer an efficient solution to a digitally immutable and virtually non-replicable document that can be easily shared across relevant players in the ecosystem such as healthcare service providers, border control, and others with certainty. The technology is now expected to be used by the Aretaeio Hospital in Nicosia, according to the Cyprus Mail.
Future Applications of Blockchain/DLT in COVID-19 Vaccinations
As both COVID-19 vaccines and DLT technologies remain in their infancy, only early implementations have been seen – as such, we can expect to see a variety of future applications that have not yet been pushed to production. This may include implementations to alleviate key pains including negotiations, logistics, and fraud prevention.
Supply Chain Integrity and Validity of Origin:
Analysts project that COVID-19 vaccines will be the highest demand counterfeit drug on the black market for 2021. Track and trace DLT networks with blockchain-based can authenticity certificates could allow purchases to ensure the origin of the vaccination and track the journey throughout an often global fragmented supply chain. This would virtually remove the possibility of receiving fraudulent or counterfeit drugs. Cargo Storage Space: With temperature and time-sensitive lifecycles, the vaccines must be shipped in specific conditions. By tracking cargo ship storage space and corresponding vaccinations through asset tracking DLT networks, logistical burdens can be minimized.Smart Contracts for Negotiations: To date, many governments around the world have found themselves susceptible to private battles with vaccination companies – with high global demand and few verified suppliers, private companies hold essentially all bargaining power. As seen in Canada, Italy, and other countries, this allows the pharma companies to delay sending vaccinations even after payments have been made and force better conditions including import tax payment delays, among other critical legal disputes. By leveraging a smart contract in the negotiation process, any room for intermediation is removed as they will be self-executing with previously agreed-upon terms. Ultimately, it is clear that there is a strong cause to leverage blockchain and distributed ledger technologies to ameliorate the current COVID-19 vaccination system, from logistics to temperature monitoring and negotiations. Though there are currently only a few systems in production, we can assume that the efficiencies brought forth perpetuate more use cases in the future.