• Tackling COVID-19 will require the first-ever deployment of blockchain in the global distribution of a vaccine.
  • Blockchain offers an immutable, decentralized database that can help all parties be sure that vaccine supplies are being stored and handled properly.

In recent weeks, not one but two companies have announced COVID-19 vaccines with efficacy rates of more than 90%. Both results are highly impressive, not only in their effectiveness, but also in the relatively short time it took to develop them. A years-long process has been shortened to mere months.

Such an achievement is a first for vaccine development. However, the world's need for trailblazing technology has not yet been met. One of the biggest challenges is still ahead – how to distribute this vaccine to every living person around the globe. In this global first, blockchain could play an essential role.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

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 pre-requisites 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 on 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.