HONG KONG – Blockchain technology usually is associated with digital currencies. However, it’s now emerging as an important platform for COVID-19 management.
It’s been a focus in China, where a top-down approach is key to driving sectors and technology. Blockchain was added to a list of Chinese government priorities in October 2019, when President Xi Jinping declared it an important breakthrough for the country. It was already in use prior to the pandemic.
“The Chinese hospitals with an increasing number of COVID-19-infected patients since January 2020 have already been utilizing blockchain technologies in numerous applications, ranging from electronic health care records to insurance claims," noted Urte Jakimaviciute, a senior director of market research at consultancy Globaldata.
She thinks the early implementation of blockchain allowed China to leverage relatively quickly existing technological and regulatory bases to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.
However, some say it is still early for blockchain in other areas of health care.
Michela Landoni, an analyst at Fitch Solutions, believes blockchain still has a very limited application in health care, with the tracking of drug supply chains currently its main use.
It is used to enhance the traceability of drugs, make supply chains more secure and curb counterfeit medicines. Pharma companies, including Boehringer Ingelheim GmbH, of Ingelheim, Germany, and Singapore’s Zuellig Pharma, have collaborated with software corporation SAP SE, of Walldorf, Germany, on blockchain solutions for supply chain tracking and fake drug identification.
“Given the high health risks posed by counterfeit medicines, regulators are keen to support the uptake of technological solutions that will help tackle the issue. In 2019, the U.S. FDA launched a pilot project for parties involved in drug supply chains to trial the use of new technologies, including blockchain, to enhance products’ traceability and improve verification,” Landoni told BioWorld.
The program will be used to inform a larger, industry-wide tracking system that will be part of the Drug Supply Chain Security Act. It will come into effect in 2023 – a time by which COVID-19 treatments should have materialized and be able to benefit from it.
Landoni named blockchain as among the new disruptive technologies with the potential to have an impact on the health care sector. But it will require some regulatory adjustments before that can happen.
“Extending blockchain’s use beyond supply chain monitoring and into more sensitive areas, such as clinical trials and patients’ data management, will only be possible if privacy concerns were to be properly addressed and the technology made more familiar to the general public. This will take time, and any development in this direction will have to undergo close regulatory scrutiny,” said Landoni.
As COVID-19 treatments and vaccines are being tested, blockchain can be used to support the trials.
“Blockchain has the potential to provide researchers with a vast amount of anonymized data that can be used to support their work, as well as identify people who would qualify to take part in medical trials,” said Landoni.
To support this application, she noted that health care providers and organizations would need to use blockchain to store anonymized patients’ data publicly. This would entail showing only nonidentifiable information, such as gender, age and type of illness.
“Research organizations could then use the publicly available information to select people who would qualify to take part in clinical trials. If full access to patients’ information [were] required for the research, it would only be obtained with the permission of the patients, should they agree to take part in the trial,” said Landoni.
With consent, she thinks blockchain also can be deployed to track patients’ adherence to medical treatments and allow smoother access to medical records.
In addition, blockchain can be applied to learning about and monitoring disease outbreak patterns.
"Blockchain facilitates more accurate reporting and could be a valuable tool in understanding, monitoring and preparing for the challenges that outbreaks such as COVID-19 present,” said Jakimaviciute.
"Due to its decentralized management, blockchain-based systems would help to report data instantly, while adhering to data privacy and security regulations. The trust factor still remains as one of the issues, though – can we trust authorities with information without having a clear visibility on what they are doing with it?” added Jakimaviciute.
Besides consent, transparency is also clearly needed.
“While any health surveillance system may be much more efficient in detecting known diseases, COVID-19 heightens the need to create more transparent and effective surveillance systems, and blockchain may present as an appealing solution to this,” said Jakimaviciute.
“With China filing one of the highest numbers of blockchain patents in the world, the country has a strong ground base to lead the way towards improving disease surveillance systems."