The COVID-19 crisis is confronting society with huge challenges. Governments all over the world are focusing on the complex task of setting up rapid high-volume vaccination campaigns so that life can get back to normal as soon as possible. Professor Kristof Stouthuysen and doctoral researcher Tineke Distelmans argue that blockchain technology can help tackle several of the challenges imposed by COVID-19, and it can even help our economy recover more quickly from this pandemic.
A blockchain can be thought of as a decentralised database for storing information over which multiple parties have joint control. Each ‘block’ represents a set of information and, when filled, the blocks are chained together, such that they form a chain of data called a ‘blockchain’. Each party involved can write and store information, but only with the approval of the others.
Blockchain technology can be useful in the vaccination campaign by tracking vaccines all the way from the manufacturer to the patient. In the UK, hospitals are already using blockchain technology to track the status of vaccine batches and monitor their refrigerated storage. The hospitals can guarantee that the data is accurate at source; and thereafter, they can verify that no changes have been made. This is particularly important since each vaccine has its own specific storage requirements. As such, blockchain helps these hospitals prevent situations in which vaccines must be thrown away due to uncertainty about their storage history.
Blockchain technology can also be used to develop a ‘health passport’. The State of New York, for example, recently announced the launch of a blockchain-based digital COVID-19 passport. This passport enables individuals to store and share their health credentials – their COVID-19 test results and vaccination records, for example. As it is based on blockchain technology, there is no central database that stores all the information, but the individuals themselves own their data and can share it. The adoption of such a digital health passport should facilitate the re-opening of sports events, concerts, and numerous other activities. Airline companies – including Emirates and British Airways – have announced that they will start trials with similar systems.
The COVID-19 pandemic is not only affecting our healthcare systems, it is also provoking severe economic consequences. Global supply chains, for example, have been significantly impacted by this pandemic, and many organisations have been confronted with raw material shortages or transportation interruptions. To be better prepared for future interruptions, organisations are seeking ways to shorten their supply chains and remove intermediaries that introduce inefficiencies. Furthermore, to get supply chains back on track, it is important that companies start to re-establish their trust in supply chain collaborations. The presence of supply chain trust reduces transaction time and greatly accelerates the flow of funds and material – hence, increasing the supply chain’s agility.
Blockchain offers supply chain partners the opportunity to increase the levels of trust by quickly sharing information in a highly secured and transparent way. Walmart, for example, is using a blockchain-based technology to make their food supply chain more transparent in order to reduce food safety concerns. This allows them to answer some critical questions at any time: Where is the shipment and when will it arrive? Who is responsible for the delay? Were there any issues along the way? The system contains a chronological chain of blocks that registers information and inventory, as well as the financial flows of the transaction. As such, blockchain helps close the gap between the financial side of a transaction and the flow of goods and information – thus increasing the levels of inter-partner trust.
In addition, the technology can increase efficiency by eliminating manual reconciliations and bypassing intermediaries. It thereby leads to improved decision-making, more accurate planning, and lower operational costs. Ultimately, blockchain has the potential to transform the way supply chains are organised in a post-COVID-19 era.