Despite a growing interest in how blockchain, distributed ledger technology, can help governments and health authorities address the challenges associated with Covid-19 vaccine distribution, several hurdles and barriers mean that this is unlikely to happen anytime soon.
Some of the difficulties associated with traditional supply chains – including distribution bottlenecks, quality control, loss, theft and counterfeiting – are likely to be manifest as Covid-19 vaccines are approved by regulators, purchased and rolled out to populations.
A decentralized technology platform that facilitates data transparency and immutable data integrity, blockchain is well placed to address these traditional supply chain challenges and assist with the process of vaccine distribution. Blockchain stores data in a network of computers located in data centers around the world.
There is no single point of entry to the network and no single source of control. All users have full visibility into all of the transactions and alterations associated with data stored on the blockchain. And data entered into the blockchain cannot be changed.
Blockchain could help vaccine distribution
For drug manufacturers, governments and health authorities, blockchain could support efforts to manage the distribution of vaccines across the entire supply chain, from packaging to distribution and storage. It could also be used to verify the source and authenticity of individual vaccine components, although there are also concerns about the reliability of the data initially entered into a blockchain.
Blockchain relies on cryptography and “harsh identifiers” to ensure data security and immutability. This means that it could guard against various potentially damaging cyber attacks, which some have already predicted.
In addition to addressing the challenges associated with vaccine supply chains, blockchain could play a role in helping to establish which individuals have already received the vaccine. Also, it can be used to store patient data that can be validated using a simple barcode scan. Such techniques could be used to help get populations moving again for work, travel or leisure.
Exploration is underway but challenges remain
Several national and international authorities are already exploring the potential use of blockchain-based apps to establish a person’s Covid-19 vaccine status. They include the United States Department of Defense (DoD) and the World Health Organization (WHO), which is currently working with the Estonian government on a 12-week pilot program to develop blockchain-based vaccination certificates for international travellers.
Despite the potential for blockchain to support Covid-19 vaccine distribution efforts and help validate a person’s vaccination status, both applications of the technology face several hurdles and potential barriers.
One is the challenge of how to politically organize the adoption and use of blockchain to support international vaccine supply chains. At this stage it is unclear which institutions would be responsible for taking leadership and whether they would galvanize the international support needed to ensure the success of blockchain-based vaccine distribution initiatives. Agreement would need to be established with regard to specific data formats and the language that data is stored in.
Another challenge hinges on the choice of platform to use and whether different platforms will be interoperable. Some companies support the use of platforms based on open standards that determine how private data is stored and shared, and which are also interoperable with other platforms based on open standards. Further challenges associated with the technology focus on developing countries, which may lack the data center infrastructure needed to successfully deploy blockchain-based distribution systems.
Lack of skills is an issue
Internationally, the absence of blockchain-related knowledge and skills may prove to be an additional hurdle. Meanwhile, although data stored in a blockchain is transparent and immutable, there are enduring concerns about the potential for data input error or even data input fraud.
Although some institutions have begun looking at how technologies such as artificial intelligence can help establish the integrity of data prior to it being stored, it is still very early days for such initiatives.
Finally, blockchain-based vaccine initiatives, especially vaccination passports and certificates, could face lack of public trust, GDPR-related legal issues, and considerable scrutiny, with a focus on how personal data is used and who has access to it.
These challenges mean that specific blockchain-based initiatives are likely to be slow to materialize and may never be fully realizable on a global scale.