Blockchain to monitor the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain
A unique challenge
The key difference between the two vaccines, from pharma companies Moderna and Pfizer, is the conditions in which they must be stored. For long-term freezing, Moderna’s vaccine requires a temperature of minus 20 Celsius degrees, but can be stored for up to one month in a regular refrigerator (2-8 Celsius). Pfizer’s vaccine, on the other hand, requires a much colder environment (i.e. minus 70 Celsius degrees) and can keep only up to five days in regular refrigeration. Naturally, it is critical to keep the vaccines stored properly in order to maintain their efficacy. Not doing so could mean the difference between life and death.
How can recipients of the vaccine rest assured that their vaccines have not been compromised by faulty storage handling, putting recipients and their surrounding social environment at risk? Is it possible to monitor and verify proper storage of the vaccine? The answer could lie in blockchain.
Building digital trust
Blockchain technology allows multiple parties to manage and share a decentralized database. These parties can create and share a transparent source of truth that can be mutually agreed upon.
As a result, blockchain could be the perfect infrastructure for supply chain management platforms as it covers two key prerequisites requirements for building digital trust:
- It is not owned by anyone, but rather provides a generic standardized protocol that all participants along the supply chain can join and share relevant data
- It is immutable, therefore existing information cannot be deleted, only appended, which consequently drives a higher level of accountability by each participant that writes new data
Another important advantage is the relative simplicity of managing read/write access permissions over the blockchain. With this, certain participants have read-only access (but cannot write), and participants who write can determine which information is shared with whom. The result is a platform that provides the full track of each and every item in near real-time, including additional information, as required. Thus, blockchain-based supply chain management platforms are highly efficient and reliable.
Image: Hexa Foundation
The technology could solve some of the most stubborn challenges of standard supply chain management, such as participants’ accountability, accuracy in tracking items, fighting potential counterfeits, complications in stock management and more. However, blockchain’s greatest advantage in this case would be the immutability of the storage conditions data. Given the vital importance of the storage temperature, vaccine distributors would be required to make sure that all storage conditions are met, but also to unequivocally prove that they were met. Ensuring that storage temperature data is recorded on an immutable database could provide this proof, removing beyond a shadow of the doubt that the vaccines are safe and effective.
With every vaccine monitored over the blockchain, each link along the chain could keep track of the entire process, and health departments could monitor the chain as a whole and intervene, if required, to ensure proper functioning:
● Manufacturers could track whether shipments are delivered on time to their destinations
● Distributors would provide a more efficient delivery tracking platform, including storage requirements verifications, and would be the first to know and notify if things go wrong
● Hospitals and clinics could better manage their stocks, mitigating supply and demand constraints. Furthermore, they would get guarantees concerning vaccine authenticity and proper storage conditions
● Individuals would have an identical guarantee for the specific vaccine they receive
Such efforts could help streamline the distribution of the much-needed vaccine – saving lives – and help reduce vaccine hesitancy, a problem that the World Health Organization named one of the top 10 health threats facing the globe in 2019.
The work ahead
Ironically, the hurdle to overcome in order to set this operation in motion is not a technical one. Several blockchain companies already have experience implementing blockchain for supply chain use cases. Many supply chain and provenance solutions are driven by commercial or cost saving incentives. Orbs, for example, has been working with a Fortune500 company on a supply chain solution to enable visibility in tracking counterfeit goods, a use case that can potentially save companies many millions of dollars. The difficulty does not lie in the technology, but rather in building and enlisting all of the multiple players to take part in the solution. It is in essence more of a political hurdle than a technological one.
While it is still unclear how long it will take until the vaccines are available for every last one of us, it is most certain that their supply chain must be closely monitored. Particularly for the
COVID-19 vaccine which the entire world needs desperately, proof of proper storage
recorded on the blockchain is indeed priceless.