Fighting pandemics on the blockchain

a person examining a dashboard of data on a digital tablet in an office

COVID-19 has proven to be a very deadly global virus. As governments around the world struggle to contain the spread of the contagion, many are wondering what tools might be available to moderate future pandemics. 

While it is probably unrealistic to expect any government to be fully prepared for an event of this magnitude, there are many areas of healthcare management that can be improved through the implementation of new data-driven technologies. In fact, many new blockchain tools have been developed to help deal with the current healthcare crisis. 

Why move to blockchain?

The value of the blockchain is that it provides a distributed ledger enabling guaranteed access to an identical copy of encrypted data. A distributed ledger is essentially an asset database that uses encryption and peer-to-peer coordination to share secure data across a network. Unlike a conventional database, blockchain ensures that all participants can be guaranteed equal access to an identical copy of encrypted data without fear of corruption. In fact, many organizations around the world have begun deploying blockchain to streamline public sector functions, including identity management, health care, and real estate.

One recent example of the use of blockchain to manage the current crisis is the World Health Organization’s MiPasa data hub. Given the need for reliable information during a pandemic, the WHO has moved to create an open-source blockchain-based data hub to verify the authenticity of data pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic. MiPasa is built on top of Hyperledger Fabric and seeks to enable “early detection of COVID-19 carriers and infection hotspots.” The platform utilizes data analytics and privacy tools to address data inconsistencies, and identify errors or misreporting for the public health analysis of COVID-19. 

On the financial front, Amazon recently announced that it is setting aside an initial $20 million to help accelerate the research and development of diagnostic tools in order to develop a faster and more accurate COVID-19 test. Looking forward, blockchain-based systems could significantly improve a range of healthcare and public service functions. And given the ongoing impact of coronavirus, many organizations are considering the value of blockchain-based platforms to connect and manage data. 

Healthcare on the blockchain

medical professionals in a meeting discussing data

In the United States, Atlanta-based software company Acoer has developed a blockchain-based dashboard that tracks and visualizes how the virus is spreading around the world in real-time. Acoer provides healthcare and life sciences institutes with blockchain solutions. In addition to pulling publicly available health data, the tracker features a section that captures recent tweets about coronavirus cases. The platform’s blockchain technology ensures that every piece of shared information cannot be manipulated or changed.

Even before the coronavirus, the US Food and Drug Administration had already approved a multi-state pilot to use blockchain technology to track medication shipments and usage in North Carolina, Indiana, and Tennessee. The goal was to use blockchain-enabled data technology to track and verify specialty prescription drugs, ensure safety, enhance value, and improve health outcomes. The pilot consortium comprises Rymedi, Temptime/Zebra, Indiana University HealthWakeMed Health & Hospitals, and other organizations. 

Many companies and startups have begun developing a number of blockchain solutions aimed at tracking the virus as well as managing medical supplies, supply chains, and medical data. China’s Alipay, along with the Zhejiang Provincial Health Commission, and the Economy and Information Technology Department have launched a blockchain-based platform that enables users to trace the demand and the supply chains of medical supplies.

Moving financial services to the blockchain

Given the speed of the coronavirus outbreak, trust has become a highly valued resource. Bridging trust when it comes to public donations for charities, governments, and healthcare organizations has proven critical to managing the distribution of cross-border donations and payments, especially during disasters. 

In an effort to solve this trust deficit, Hangzhou-based blockchain startup Hyperchain has developed a donation-tracking platform that has already attracted millions in donations. Donors can use the platform to see where funds are most urgently needed and then track their donations until they are provided with verification that their donations have been received. 

Ant Financial’s Xiang Hu Bao has leveraged its blockchain-based mutual aid platform to manage the pandemic in China. Literally translated as “mutual protection”, Xiang Hu Bao was launched in 2018 to provide its users with a basic health plan against hundreds of critical illnesses. Building on blockchain tools, the company has been able to leverage the decentralized nature of blockchain technology to deliver healthcare funding. The platform has added coronavirus to its list of critical conditions eligible for financial support.

Transforming public services with blockchain

a person with a laptop about to sing in to an online class

In the wake of isolation measures introduced by governments around the world, the Swiss company ODEM is providing free access to its blockchain education and credentialing platform to educational institutions. Founded in 2017, ODEM has been built to leverage blockchain technology to transform the education and employment industries. Odem’s platform allows educators to “issue digital certificates of completion and achievement” as they teach classes online. 

One country that has emerged as a global leader in leveraging blockchain to digitize government services is Estonia. Estonia provides a strong example of the kinds of digital government solutions that we can look forward to. Their “E-Estonia” plan is one of the most ambitious electronic government projects in the world. In fact, the country’s 1.3 million citizens hold ID cards that use 2048-bit public key encryption which enables electronic banking, voting, email encryption, digital contracts, and access to public transit. 

Overlapping with coronavirus is China’s recent release of its blockchain-based Service Network (BSN). China’s BSN will be among the first blockchain networks developed by a central government to accelerate the widespread use of blockchain technologies. One of the main aims of China’s BSN infrastructure is to offer an economical way for small and medium-sized enterprises to adopt blockchain tools. BSN is an alliance between Chinese government groups, banks, and technology companies that envision an operating system to anchor existing blockchain applications and support new bespoke blockchain applications in the future.

Fighting a pandemic with technology

Coronavirus is not the first pandemic to impact the modern world, but it is probably the most widespread. Given the scale and scope of COVID-19, it is time to consider the need for borderless technology solutions in managing the epidemics to come. 

Containing the spread of global contagions like COVID-19 is partly a data management challenge. Given the value of blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies in managing data, it stands to reason that blockchain will play an outsized role in managing healthcare and public services in the future. Whether it is a question of record management-keeping, tracking supply chains, ensuring real-time data integrity, or screening for misinformation, blockchain technologies will be invaluable to the future of disease control. 

Blockchain will not prevent the emergence of new viruses but it can create a global line of defense for improving our responses in the future. Even as China appears to be getting a hold on the spread, Europe, the United States, and elsewhere are now increasingly overwhelmed. The economic consequences of coronavirus remain difficult to forecast. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of globalization. Given the widespread damage done by the pandemic, it’s not hard to predict that blockchain will be a large part of the solutions in managing future contagions.

About Futurithmic

It is our mission to explore the implications of emerging technologies, seeking answers to next-level questions about how they will affect society, business, politics and the environment of tomorrow.

We aim to inform and inspire through thoughtful research, responsible reporting, and clear, unbiased writing, and to create a platform for a diverse group of innovators to bring multiple perspectives.

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