While 2020 has started in the worst possible way – with the coronavirus pandemic taking the world by storm, affecting millions of lives, families and businesses – December brings a much-needed glimmer of hope. Three companies have already announced efficient Covid-19 vaccines and others are tirelessly working towards this goal. In this race against the pandemic and the clock, blockchain technology could play an essential role in improving the global Covid-19 vaccine supply chain.   

Distributing the COVID-19 vaccine “will require one of the largest supply chain capacities for fighting pandemics ever built”, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF), facilitating the distribution of between 7 to 19 billion vaccine doses. Given the huge scale of this operation, a question arises: will traditional supply chains – usually plagued by bottlenecks, quality control issues, theft, and counterfeiting – live up to the task? Are today’s processes from the global supply chain perfected in such a way that they can ensure a smooth distribution of the vaccines? 

The truth is that the supply chain leaves a lot to be desired – in these mentioned areas and several others – so an efficient solution must be found quickly. To avoid these well-known supply chain vulnerabilities, the pharma industry is looking at blockchain and the transparent digital ledger technology. Why blockchain? Thanks to its inherent characteristics and advantages, blockchain offers an immutable, decentralized database which can help all parties be sure that vaccine supplies are being stored and handled properly. 

Challenges in the distribution of Covid-19 vaccine

Looking at two of the three vaccines announced so far – the ones from Moderna and Pfizer – one big difference is the conditions in which they have to be stored. Moderna requires a temperature of -20 degrees Celsius for long-term freezing, but can also be stored for up to one month in a regular refrigerator (2-8 Celsius). On the other hand, Pfizer’s vaccine requires -70 degrees Celsius and can be kept in a regular refrigerator for only 5 days. Given these aspects, it’s important for the vaccine recipients to know, for sure, that their vaccines have been kept in storage in accordance with the manufacturer’s requirements. And this can be accurately done with the help of blockchain technology. 

On the other hand, blockchain can be the right answer also for the vaccine manufacturers blockchain allows accurate tracking of all aspects of the supply chain, from packaging and cold-chain transit to distribution strategies and storage. Many components go into a vaccine, not just active or inactive viral components, and there can be questions about where they are sourced, how they were supplied. With blockchain, manufacturers can track any component which has been included in their vaccines.

WEF: blockchain, essential for equitable vaccine distribution

Many specialists believe that the supply chain for a COVID-19 vaccine “must be equitable”. Commenting on this, World Economic Forum representatives say that this equitability “can only be built on an openly verifiable, consensus-driven system having immutable integrity of data with no single source of control.” As vaccine access “will critically depend on an information system with the highest possible integrity”, WEF says that blockchain technology will be essential for equitable COVID-19 vaccine distribution. 

According to WEF, so far blockchain technology has been mostly used in pilot experiments in retail and transport logistics “to enable real-time tracking of shipments and shared access of data between consortium members, building trust.” Now, more than ever, the time has come for these pilot-scheme learnings to be “utilized to enable a truly global ledger for the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain.”

Undisputed benefits for the global supply chain

Blockchain can solve some of the most pressing issues of the traditional supply chain, such as accuracy in tracking items, complications in stock management, fighting potential counterfeits and the participants’ accountability. Besides these, the most important advantage that blockchain brings to the table is the immutability of the storage conditions data. Keeping in mind how important the storage temperature is, by using blockchain technology vaccine distributors would be required to make sure not only that all storage conditions are met, but also to prove – beyond doubt – that they were met.

Thanks to blockchain technology, the vaccine’s manufacturers could track whether shipments are delivered on-time to their destinations. At the same time, 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 will also benefit as they will be able to better manage their stocks, mitigating supply and demand constraints. Last, but not least, the patients will have a solid guarantee that the vaccine they are receiving has been transported and stored accordingly. 

Making sure the patient receives the right vaccine

According to IBM, using blockchain in the Covid-19 vaccine supply chain has several advantages: 

  • End-to-end traceability – blockchain can provide real-time visibility of vaccine distribution and chain of custody from manufacturing to administration, eliminating blind spots across public and private entities; 
  • Reduced risk – preemptive detection and proactive notification of supply chain disruptions, adverse reactions, fraud, spoilage, and other unexpected events help deliver the vaccines ready to go; 
  • Safety and efficacy assurance – environmental monitoring of transport and storage conditions, as well as rapid recall traceability will help ensure efficacy and build trust; 
  • Open governance pharmaceutical network – a permissioned, open source data exchange platform will unite diverse, localized vaccine management strategies into a single integrated view, while enabling participants to continue using their preferred systems of record and systems of interaction.

Commenting on this, Mark Treshock, blockchain solutions leader for healthcare and life sciences at IBM, stated that blockchain could also be used to unify records about immunization for the patient, making sure that the patient gets the right vaccine in a set of two. “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. 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.”

covid-19 vaccine

Modex’s view on the matter

Modex strongly believes that blockchain can unequivocally improve the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain by helping the parties involved in the process to better keep track of vaccines. Blockchain technology allows for transparent, peer-managed, secure data tracking across computing devices, and creates a public, chronological database. Blockchain has the potential to offer new solutions because it is:

  • Consistent – With blockchain, data can’t differ across databases because there is one single record. This reduces issues with duplicate or tampered data and makes the data itself much more accessible, rather than trapping it in different organizations’ record-keeping systems.
  • Append–only – Users can only add transactions to a database, making everything traceable and auditable.
  • Ownable – An entity can “own” data and choose who gets to access it. Instead of a company selling someone’s data to a third party, that person can control where their data goes.
  • There are clear rules – One version of the database is used, and the rules about it are known. As many already know, the lack of data standards and master records has created fragmentation and frustration across the healthcare industry, for instance.
  • Decentralized – Copies of the database are kept in multiple places and no third-party needs to exist as an administrator. This reduces overhead and the need for middlemen. In addition, this also prevents centralized systems from becoming completely locked down and inaccessible.

Supply chain and inventory management

Nowadays, companies are given information about the products they receive, but are unable to ensure if the products are authentic. Blockchain would enable the tracking of products throughout a supply chain using track-and-trace and serialization technologies. This way, a company could check the history and provenance of a product through immutable transaction history on the blockchain.

With blockchain technology, each company in the supply chain would control one or several nodes. Each time a company entered into a transaction with another company in the supply chain, that transaction would be recorded and validated on the blockchain. This would simplify the transfer of data and allow product recipients to validate their provenance with greater certainty. It would also significantly simplify transaction reconciliations and data transfers.