Is blockchain the answer to China’s vaccine woes?

The recent vaccine scandal involving China’s pharmaceutical company Changsheng Biotechnology has prompted much outcry on social media. Shocked and disgusted, the public has demanded an official investigation into the scandal. And at the same time, they start to look at potential solutions to the problem. As one of the most hyped technologies, blockchain has been much discussed as one of the key solutions to this social issue.

Issues with China’s Current Vaccine Logistics Management

As early as in 2005, China Food and Drug Administration started to work with Citic to build China’s digital drug administration platform. But the platform stopped being updated since March 1st, 2017 because of “ impact of relevant policies and changes of company strategies”. Instead, enterprises were advised to build their own logistics management system or choose third-party platforms.

Notice of the drug administration platform no longer being updated

Third party platforms include those established by internet giants such as Tencent and Alibaba. For example, AliHealth, the healthcare arm of Alibaba Group, runs a vaccine tracking platform called 码上放心 (Mashang Fangxin), which had 80% of China’s pharmaceutical manufacturers on it by end of March 2018. Apart from medicine and vaccines, it also provides logistics tracking for food, alcohol, farm produce, etc.

But scandals involving medicines or vaccines are still happening despite public and private sector efforts to better monitor the vaccine logistics.

In 2016 China police arrested 37 people for illegal sales of vaccines that were expired or improperly stored. China Daily also published a story that four children died and more than 70 sickened from improperly stored vaccines between 2006 and 2008.

Either established by the manufacturers on their own or by third parties, the logistics tracking platform is centralized. This means the production record and quality check recorded can be easily tampered with, according to Xu Siyan, a researcher at the Tencent Research Institute. She also pointed out that another key problem with such centralized platform is the lack of transparency, where the data is stored in a black box where only a few have access.

Blockchain as a potential solution

As a distributed digital ledger that is maintained real-time, blockchain’s tamper-proof nature can ensure the veracity of the data once it’s been recorded.

“We can use blockchain to reinforce that trust by informing consumers about a vaccine’s ‘provenance’ – providing a tamper-proof record of where and when a vaccine was produced, by whom, and that it reached the consumer safely and in top condition,” said Roice Fulton, Executive Director of Denominator, a Swiss non-profit and a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenge Explorations awardee that is using blockchain to tackle vaccine problems. “These qualities also make it easier for government and international health authorities to remain vigilant for actors and events that may violate this trust.”

So what should a blockchain-based vaccine system look like? Tencent Research Institute provided a concept of a vaccine logistics tracking system based on the blockchain.

Below are several steps suggested in the article to build a blockchain-based vaccine logistics tracking system:

  1. Manufacturers put RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) labels on vaccines, with each batch assigned a unique tracking number, recording information such as temperature and expiry date.
  2. In every process, each party will put new data on the blockchain. When authorized parties (nodes) are trying to do a transaction with each other, a consensus and digital signature are required to make the transaction happen. This will include the data about the vaccine itself.
  3. Using IoT technology to monitor the storage, and put the data on blockchain under the supervision of a third party.
  4. Consumers scan QR or barcodes to get manufacturing and distribution information about the vaccines.

Reduction of cost, data security and veracity, improved efficiency and transparency… but despite all these advantages brought by blockchain technology, there are still question marks.

Not a silver bullet

In a piece on Hackernoon, blockchain developer Shawn Gordon wrote about the classic computing concept known as “garbage in, garbage out”, which basically means any logistics and tracking systems are only as reliable as the information that is given.

In other words, if intentionally fabricated data or inaccurate data resulting from human mistakes are put on the blockchain, no matter how advanced the whole platform is, it is still not reliable.

Roice agrees that while blockchain can track factors affecting the quality of a vaccine during shipment, such as temperature and storage time, it cannot guarantee itself that the vaccine was manufactured correctly to begin with.

“To do that, government authorities will need to ensure that strong quality standards are in place and adhered to by all manufacturers. Evidence of this adherence, such as a digital certificate of quality, can be included on the blockchain record to provide additional confidence to consumers that the vaccine is safe and effective.”

To avoid a “garbage in, garbage out,” Internet of Things (IoT) is another much-discussed technology to go together with blockchain in taking on the vaccine crises. IoT technology can help to record the journey of the products across the supply chain from manufacturer to the customer to create an extra layer of visibility, transparency, and authenticity, while also minimizing the human element to avoid fabricated or inaccurate data.

But this would mean much higher cost to revamp the whole process of vaccine production and stock monitoring. How to incentivize different parties is a very important question to answer.

Another challenge pointed out by Xu Siyan from Tencent Research Institute is that it will take long, hard negotiations to come to a consensus about what kind of information should be shared with which parties.

“No one technology or stakeholder can solve every issue facing the appropriate delivery of healthcare. Blockchain is not a silver bullet. It is one tool – albeit a transformational one – that can be applied to the vaccine supply chain,” said CEO and co-founder of Denominator, Lisa Leenhouts-Martin. “The people and institutions that govern healthcare will remain critical to ensuring quality vaccine delivery.”