Could a dose of blockchain prevent China’s vaccine production data problem?

A blockchain-based drug tracking system could help prevent China's next vaccine scandal, some blockchain experts suggest. (peshkov/iStock)

As a new production scandal undermines Chinese citizens' confidence in domestically made vaccines, the tech community is suggesting the solution may lie in a much-hyped technology: blockchain.

VeChain, in partnership with DNV GL, is using blockchain in a drug and vaccine traceability system, a project supported by the Shanghai municipal government. The VeChainThor Blockchain, according to VeChain, captures “all data involved in vaccine manufacture and transport including getting vaccines from manufacturers, storage facilities, cold chain distribution, hospitals, and even usage.”

VeChain said data recorded by the solution are “immutable and permanent.” It can prevent future vaccine scandals through early risk warning and management and can help provide evidence and point to the responsible parties if a crisis does emerge. The solution is being developed and tested in Shanghai and will soon be rolled out across China.

The announcement comes amid a scandal that involves Changchun Changsheng Life Sciences, one of China’s largest vaccines suppliers. An investigation by the Chinese government found the company “systematically fabricated production and testing records” to cover up its unauthorized rabies vaccine manufacturing practice.

Concerns over the quality of the company’s other products and even Chinese-made vaccines broadly ripple across the country, since the company had previously provided 252,600 doses of substandard acellular diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus vaccines meant for children under the country’s compulsory vaccination scheme.

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Some tech-savvy IoT experts see an opportunity for blockchain adoption in the vaccine industry—or pharmas in general—to prevent similar case in the future.

Blockchain, the backbone technology underlying bitcoin, is a digital ledger system. Instead of using a centralized database, the transaction data is evenly distributed across a network of multiple computers. How does that fit into drug manufacturing?

Because each entry or transaction is hashed into a “block” that’s connected with the prior block using cryptography, data—or the history of records—stored there is considered tamper-resistant unless someone can take control of the majority of computers in the system, which is almost impossible.

In an article (Chinese) published on WeChat, Li Xiaolai, a well-known Chinese cryptocurrency investor, suggested the approach could improve transparency along every step of vaccine supply chain.

Li suggested such joint bookkeeping records all the details in the entire vaccine supply chain, from who manufactures the vaccine, to who’s responsible for quality control, to who at which hospital or CDC bought a vaccine at what price and when the vaccine was given to whom.

RELATED: Doctors use bitcoin tech to improve transparency in trial research

The transparency, traceability and falsification-proof advantages of such a system can help keep the public calm, Li argues. Since public health is at stake, a blockchain system for vaccine and drug record doesn’t need cryptocurrency like bitcoin to incentivize people to participate, says Li.

But blockchain has its own limitations. For example, while it can resist data modification, it can’t guarantee the accuracy of the original data entered, says a recent report (Chinese) by Tencent Research Institute.

Multinational pharmas have already embarked on the blockchain journey. Last September, a blockchain-based joint venture called The MediLedger Project was formed to help track prescription medicines so that counterfeit drugs can’t enter the supply chain. Pfizer, Roche’s Genentech, AmiresourceBergen and McKesson contributed to building a pilot system.