On Jan. 30, the South China Morning Post reported that one of the largest Asian pharmaceutical companies, Zuellig, had launched a blockchain-based system to track the quality of COVID-19 vaccines. Called “eZTracker,” it allows any user to “instantly verify the provenance and authenticity” of vaccines by scanning the QR code on the package. Somewhat surprisingly, throughout the pandemic, there have not been many reports of blockchain-based products adopted by big pharma or global healthcare organizations to bolster the anti-COVID effort. Here is a rundown of the major cases of such adoption, along with possible reasons for the limited interest in blockchain among healthcare officials.
South Korea: Blockchain vaccine passports
In April 2021, the South Korean government became the first to introduce blockchain-based vaccine passports amid the COVID-19 crisis. Putting proof of vaccination on a distributed ledger ensures the authenticity of the document as many people around the world tend to counterfeit such “Green Passes,” which sometimes can secure access to restaurants, public spaces and travel.
The app, which goes by the name COOV, was developed by London-based Blockchain Labs and is available on the App Store and Google Play Store. It generates a QR-code for each user and ensures that all personal data is stored on the user's device, exchanging it with the app host through blockchain only.
Brazil: The National Health Data Network
The blockchain-based National Health Data Network is not being built specifically to fight the coronavirus — it constitutes a vital part of the ambitious plan to digitize Brazil’s entire healthcare system. Yet, the system has been used to respond to coronavirus-related challenges since late 2020.
The main use of the Brazilian network, like that in South Korea, is vaccination tracking. The system registers every jab immediately, creating a database that allows for a “continuity of care in the public and private sectors.” The national healthcare digitization project is expected to be completed by 2023.
Mexico: COVID-19 test certificates
In October 2021, private healthcare provider MDS Mexico launched a rapid COVID-19 testing service, backed by blockchain. The digital platform allows patients to get their test results in real-time via a QR code and to safely store their vaccination history. Once again, the company cited the fight against counterfeit vaccinations as the key mission of the platform:
To avoid the falsification of negative results, we began to certify the SARS-CoV-2 detection tests with blockchain technology and cryptographic signature, which protects the information in a unique, immutable and unalterable QR Code that can be verified worldwide.
The private initiative followed the earlier announcement of Mexico’s National Chamber of Commerce that it plans to digitize vaccine passports with the use of blockchain technology.
These examples represent only a small fraction of all blockchain-related projects that are being developed to combat public health threats. Distributed ledgers can help to manage supply chains, ensure the quality of drugs, hold medical records, process insurance claims and increase the efficiency of systems performing a range of other tasks.
Besides safe data management and vaccine tracking, healthcare researchers see opportunities to use blockchains in an even greater variety of areas. A group of American medical scholars proposes a blockchain-based movement pass that relies on smart contracts and tokens to facilitate social distancing. A Scottish research group came up with a project of a blockchain platform, synchronized with the Internet of Things (IoT), that can trace contacts without compromising user identities.
Promoting cross-border compatibility
Enabling cross-border data sharing that could preserve patients’ privacy is a humongous task. To solve it, two scientists from the National Institute of Technology Raipur (India) designed a consortium blockchain to identify and validate COVID-19-related reports through the comparison of the perceptual hash of each report with existing on-chain perceptual hashes.
Reporting COVID-related data to healthcare authorities can get problematic in a pandemic. Jim Nasr, CEO of Acoer — the company that launched the first decentralized COVID-19 tracker back in 2020 — shared his U.S. experience with Cointelegraph:
Every state has its own requirements and mechanism for collection of state-level COVID data. In turn, the states have mandatory infectious disease reporting obligations to federal government entities that largely fund them. The quality and timeliness of data reporting is at best inconsistent, inefficient and publicly non-transparent.
The problems that remain
Currently, the vast majority of COVID-19-related projects still live only on paper. As the most acute phase of the pandemic is arguably over, healthcare innovators seem to be less inclined to focus specifically on the coronavirus. Meanwhile, the number of medical blockchain startups remains on the rise in a variety of more general areas, such as patient consent, clinical trial recruitment, IoT device management, clinical goods supply, finished goods traceability and many others.
Nevertheless, the larger problem of the relationship between blockchain innovation and healthcare officials persists. As Nasr notes, many traditional public health institutions are not ready to embrace blockchain-powered innovation:
In my experience, many of their KOLs (Key Opinion Leaders) are under-informed about DLTs and largely [concerned] about the noise in the space (e.g. scamming, cryptocurrency volatility, dealing with keys & wallets, etc).
It is not solely the lack of information that affects adoption. At the end of the day, both public and private healthcare sectors could lack the incentives to innovate in the direction of transparency. Nasr believes that some current problematic aspects of the healthcare industry — “particularly siloed data and opacity of pricing and process” — maintain its profitability and support a thick layer of intermediaries who all benefit along the way. The missing component here is patient pushback that could arise from a better understanding of their rights of data transparency and privacy.