The coronavirus pandemic, which began as a small outbreak in Wuhan, China, late last year, has infected more than 43 million people and has killed over 1.1 million people globally, as of October 2020. Challenges such as paucity of reliable data, shortage of medical resources, inefficient disease surveillance strategies, limited technology to promote engagement with patients, and conflicting data from multiple sources have so far exacerbated the crisis.
The pandemic has, therefore, created a crisis of trust, in which there is still much confusion about the true prevalence of the disease, the actual mortality rates, and the best public health measures to curb further spread of the virus. This “infodemic” has led to a distrust of public health agencies and government institutions, pushing tech giants to explore ways in which blockchain technology could check these problems.
Blockchain technology is based on a “trustless” system, in which there is a decentralized architecture of storing and sharing data, bypassing the challenges posed by intermediary agencies and centralized ecosystems.
Blockchain technology allows data transactions between individuals, with each party maintaining full control of the information and mutually verifying transactions within a network. This structure eliminates the barriers to the flow of data, allowing easy access to information. This, in turn, fosters transparency of transactions, accountability between users, and immutability of data. These unique characteristics of this novel technology make it invaluable as a tool to fight the coronavirus pandemic and infodemic.
So far, tech companies have developed a wide range of applications and use cases of the technology in combating the numerous challenges caused by the pandemic.
One of the most pivotal strategies to rein in the spread of the coronavirus infection is tracking and isolating close contacts of infected individuals. Considering that lockdown and social distancing measures may not be sustainable - coupled with their attendant economic and mental health problems - building contact tracing models may be a better lever in addressing the outbreak at an individual level while allowing the economy to regain some level of normalcy.
Many countries, including Norway, South Korea, Germany, and Singapore, have developed contact tracing applications to control the outbreak; however, many of these applications are riddled with challenges of data breaches and insecurity, which have limited their effectiveness. In some countries, contact tracing apps have been discontinued because of these concerns. This drawback poses an opportunity for governments and tech giants to adopt blockchain technology in building secured contact tracing apps.
Blockchain technology uses anonymization and cryptography to collect information from contacts without identifying them. This system uses a digital fingerprint or key to label each patient without exposing any personal identifiers. This way, public health agencies and healthcare providers can access these data and even send alerts to users without knowing who they are.
Patient Information Sharing
The coronavirus pandemic has fostered global efforts and collaborations to deepen our understanding of the virus and develop preventive and treatment interventions against the virus. This international alliance involves massive global sharing of patient datasets, including the epidemiological distribution of the disease and the racial disparities in its prevalence, which are integral in understanding the disease and developing appropriate interventions.
In all of these interactions, patient data is central, and maintaining patient data privacy remains a serious concern.
The decentralized data system of blockchain technology considerably improves patient data security and privacy, allowing the patient to determine who has access to their information and for what purpose. Further, blockchain technology eliminates the middleman in centralized databases, allowing hospitals and healthcare providers to choose with whom they share patient data.
Also, blockchain technology creates a seamless flow of information between healthcare providers and institutions across the world. Data are validated using unique keys, eliminating concerns of data forging or modification. This system builds trust among stakeholders and maintains the consistency of patient data, and, in turn, the accuracy of research studies.
Supply Chain Management
The widespread pandemic-induced lockdowns and travel restrictions have disrupted the supply of goods, particularly medical products, across the globe. Markedly reduced industrial production across the world has also significantly upended the global supply of goods. This has resulted in an extensive shortage of medical supplies, including personal protective equipment, as well as the proliferation of counterfeit goods that exploit this challenge.
Blockchain technology can mitigate this crisis in the global supply chain of resources by knitting stakeholders, suppliers, and buyers in a trust-less network that registers all transactions in a decentralized ledger. The ledger contains the details of the processes and parties involved in a transaction, which, in turn, streamlines communication and operations since all the transactions are digitally-driven. Consequently, stakeholders can develop more global and scalable operations, which is essential for economic recovery in the post-pandemic period.
Further, the decentralized structure of blockchain affords each member equal access to the stored data, such that everyone can see everything about a product, including the production process, the product location, and the shipment time.
Also, blockchain technology creates a decentralized payment system that can facilitate cross-border transactions in split seconds. Using the distributed ledger technology, buyers can transfer funds through multiple processing nodes, promoting cashless and seamless payment transactions and eliminating payment failures.
Validating Product Quality
The principle of transparency in blockchain technology can also boost manufacturing management. In such unprecedented times as these, when medical supplies are in huge demand, opportunists may infiltrate the market with counterfeit products to upturn profits. The demand for personal protective equipment, including disinfectants, sanitizers, face masks, have surged during the pandemic, but so have the supplies of counterfeit PPEs.
Furthermore, the supply of fake COVID-19 test kits has surged, potentially affecting data on COVID-19 infectivity rates. Similarly, inadequate quality control measures may also affect COVID-19 drug and vaccine production, exposing patients to more harm. With blockchain-driven IoT systems, stakeholders can validate the integrity of a product, with accessible ledgers that track the different stages of production, including raw material gathering, manufacturing, storing, and shipment.
Blockchain-enabled manufacturing ecosystems allow members of the network to log production data using blockchain nodes connected with their production line. The data remains immutable and decentralized, promoting transparency and maintaining the integrity of the product throughout the process. For pharmaceutical products, the blockchain network contains nodes and unique signatures for the manufacturer, distributors, transport companies, and the healthcare provider or pharmacist. In this case, the drug bears a unique signature in the ledger, which also contains every detail about its production.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the limitations and challenges of the decentralized data system with the prevalence of various challenges, including data multiplicity, misinformation, and a surge in counterfeit medical supplies. Harnessing the core properties of blockchain technology, including the immutability of data, transparency of transactions, and data security, governments and public health agencies can address many of these problems, taking the world several steps ahead in curbing the pandemic and bringing the global economy back to normalcy.