UK hospitals use blockchain to track vaccine efforts

The tech will improve record-keeping and data-sharing across complex cold-storage vaccine supply chains.
19 January 2021

NHS advanced nurse practitioner Edwina Williams prepares a phial of the Oxford/Astrazeneca Covid-19 vaccine. Source: AFP

  • Vaccine supply chains are incredibly complex, due to the requirements for cold storage, and the pace and scale of distribution
  • UK hospitals are using blockchain to ensure the integrity of vaccines, ensuring they haven’t been tampered with or mishandled

The world has leaned on the crutch of technology in the long-fought battle against the pandemic, from artificial intelligence in vaccine development, to Bluetooth and GPS-enabled contact tracing, to healthcare consultations on cloud-hosted video conferencing solutions. 

Now, in what’s hoped to be the final long straight, two hospitals in the UK are using blockchain technology to keep track of the supply and storage of COVID-19 vaccines. 

As reported by Reuters, two healthcare facilities in Warwick, England are expanding their use of a distributed ledger from tracking vaccines and chemotherapy drugs to monitoring fridges storing the COVID-19 vaccines.

Blockchain is a digital ledger that uses cryptographic blocks to record and store data about transactions that have occurred using its system.

Commonly associated with cryptocurrencies, it’s not only a platform for digital money transactions. The technology has also been used for automating smart contracts, medical records and other data storage, humanitarian aid, and reduction of corruption in elections.

Now, the tech will improve record-keeping and data-sharing across complex vaccines supply chains, and those for other treatments, according to Everyware, a company that monitors vaccines and other treatments for the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), and Hedera, a Texas-based firm owned by Google and IBM. 

Distribution of COVID-19 vaccines quickly and effectively is particularly complex, given the scale required and certain vaccines’ short shelf-life requiring cold storage throughout the supply chain. Pfizer Inc and BioNTech’s shot must be shipped and stored at ultra-cold temperatures or on dry ice.

Using blockchain can ensure all members of the supply chain can access and verify that the vaccine and its record of transit and storage haven’t been changed or tampered with. Everyware’s Tom Screen said that monitoring the vaccines would be possible without blockchain, but manual systems would raise the risk of mistakes. 

Blockchain systems are known for their security, and while they’re not immune to breaches, the nature of the technology means interactions with data stored on ledgers are easy to track and monitor – that’s especially important given the complexity of vaccine supply chains, spanning healthcare organizations, logistics and storage firms, IT companies, and government organizations among others.

Last year, IBM researchers detected cyber-espionage targeting international COVID-19 vaccine supply chain intelligence. 

The computing giant’s security division identified phishing emails targeted at key recipients, seemingly in efforts to gather vital information on the World Health Organization’s initiative for distributing a vaccine to developing countries.