Blockchain could be the key to vaccine distribution, says IBM

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Over the last few weeks three pharma companies released promising trial data from their COVID-19 vaccines, bringing a possible light at the end of the tunnel to the pandemic. While the vaccines are still yet to hit the market, discussion of distribution is beginning to surface. Blockchain, a technology that makes the data easy to verify and difficult to falsify, has come into the conversation. 

MobiHealthNews sat down with Mark Treshock, blockchain solutions leader for healthcare and life sciences at IBM, to talk about how the technology could be an ingredient in pulling off worldwide COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

“Essentially each of these vaccines, at least the ones that are currently being discussed requires two doses, so that’s two doses for really every person on earth, so roughly 15 billion doses or 6 million in the United States,” Treshock said.

“That’s a level of undertaking that is just beyond anything we have done as a society. To confound that, it’s the fact that these vaccines are all different and they are not interchangeable. So even though they treat or vaccinate against the same virus, they are different vaccines.”

He noted that all of the vaccines that we’ve seen so far have different maintenance requirements as well, specifically varying temperatures. But this isn’t the only issue in distribution. Ensuring that the vaccines are being shipped to the right place and not diverted or stolen is another. 

“This will be the most sought-after, counterfeit and probably diverted drug ever for the first six to 12 months after it comes out,” he said.

This is one area where blockchain could help. He noted that one functionality of blockchain is helping with supply chain integrity at various touch points. Therefore, he said, blockchain has the potential to track the vaccines and make sure they haven’t been compromised.  

“What you really want is to be able to pick up a bottle or vile of vaccine and … [have a] view of the path that that vaccine took, to ensure that you can do that, to have integrity in the vaccine or temperature [and density], again maintained under temperature conditions. As important as that is in the U.S., it is doubly important in the developing world, where counterfeit drugs, for example, are already and incredible problem and result in a tragic loss of life annually.”

But tracking the vaccine isn’t the only way blockchain can be employed, he said. It can also be used to help patients keep track of their vaccine records and provide proof of vaccination for travel, schools and more.

“The idea is that if I can on my phone, for example, have a credential that is verifiable and immutable that represents, let’s say, the fact that I’ve been vaccinated. I can go and show that to get on an airplane,” he said. “And TSA or an airline can scan that as much as they scan your boarding pass today. Because it is blockchain, it is immutable, so it ties back to a very verifiable record that represents my status, in this case, let’s say it’s vaccinated.”

IBM has been working on a structure to address this very issue, called IBM Health Pass, which would use blockchain to verify a person’s COVID-19 status. 

“It is based on a set of open standards called W3C, which define how federated privacy and how some of the private data is stored and shared, which means that even if a city, or state, or airline uses IBM health pass, it still interoperable with other systems that follow this standard, and vice versa. So, in that way it’s not locking the world into one proprietary application.”

Treshock said that blockchain could also be used to unify records about immunization for the patient, specifically making sure that the patient gets the right vaccine in a set of two. 

“The two-dose challenge. Where you need two doses, they need to be within a set time window, let’s say 30 days, and they need to be from the same manufacturer,” he said. “So, if your first dose is Pfizer, your second dose has to be Pfizer as well. They aren’t interchangeable. When we start administering this vaccine at scale, it is going to be very challenging coordinating that.”

Treshock said he sees all these blockchain systems working seamlessly together. The vaccine dose will be tracked, the patient will have a record of their dose and then the patient will have proof of their vaccination. He also noted that having a record of which batch of vaccine the patient took could be helpful for recall situations. 

“As much of a tragedy of [COVID-19] is, and it is an unspeakable tragedy, if we are able to put in place these sorts of structures around the supply chain or health data, that will be a great accomplishment for us.

“Now we are speaking about supply chain data and the context of [COVID-19], but these same issues are still there for other medicines as well, for other vaccines, and then for other medicines in general,” Treshock said. “One thing that the pandemic has demonstrated or made clear is that there really isn’t great insight into where the medicine comes from.” 

 

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