How companies have turned to blockchain to respond to the COVID ‘data crisis’

COVID blockchain vaccine distribution
Photo via New York National Guard/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

In 2012, Jonathan Levi stepped down as executive director of Goldman Sachs’ Quantitative Analytics division. He wanted to move to Silicon Valley to work on blockchain. He enrolled in Stanford’s applied math graduate school program, only to drop out in his last quarter to shift his full attention to cryptocurrency. He’d move on to IBM where he led in the development of the hyperledger technology, one of the largest enterprise blockchain platforms in the world, and today, during the COVID pandemic, he can hardly believe what his job has become. 

“If you told me six months ago that this is what we were going to build, I would’ve been like, ‘No way,’” Levi told Nautilus over Zoom from his home office in London.

In 2016, Levi left IBM to start his own company called HACERA, a multilayered framework that could act as a starter kit for companies looking to build blockchain-based applications and services on platforms of their choice. 

Levi says HACERA was initially built to track very fine payments, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he and his team shifted gears. They moved quickly to add a new layer to the HACERA framework called MiPasa, a multi-cloud blockchain network that integrates publicly available coronavirus data from verified sources across the globe. 

Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft jumped in to back the project soon after it was announced. Levi says before the pandemic it would be nearly impossible to get such tech giants to integrate their clouds on one platform, but COVID-19 led to a shift. 

“Because we have this physical pressure, this physical lockdown, it makes you move to digital and we’re forced to work together in a decentralized way,” he said. “Suddenly people see the value of blockchain, because suddenly we have to connect.” 

HACERA is among the companies that have turned to blockchain to respond to a “data crisis” that emerged in the wake of COVID. Examining their efforts reveals how companies are repurposing powerful data collection technologies to modernize pandemic responses. While the adoption of innovations has been a challenge during COVID, HACERA’s work offers a glimpse at how blockchain could be harnessed to respond to pandemics in the future. 

How the coronavirus data crisis was created

As COVID-19 spread around the world in the spring of 2020, contact tracing presented an early data collecting strategy that could visualize virus clusters for policymakers and help individuals identify the spread of the virus within their towns and social networks. 

Bruce Y. Lee is a professor at CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy, and he developed computational models to guide the national response to the H1N1 flu pandemic in 2009. When the coronavirus pandemic began, Lee said a lack of coordination from the federal level combined with disparate health data collection systems left states scrambling to collect data and to integrate it on a national scale.

“It’s like having a football team and the head coach is providing no guidance in terms of plans, game strategy, etc,” he told Nautilus. “Then all the players are randomly trying to figure out, ‘OK, how, how, how can we do things?’ And you could see how that would not lead to a winning situation.” 

The lack of guidance from the top only compounded long-standing healthcare data management issues resulting from fractured and outdated information storage ecosystems. In each state, hospitals and public health organizations maintain health records in their own formats, and records are often closed off to the rest of the healthcare system. 

“Because of the lack of planning and lack of national organization, the data that has been collected has been siloed and fragmented because there’s no overarching federal authorities saying, ‘OK, this is what we need,’” Lee said. 

Furthermore, early in the pandemic, the Trump administration complicated the challenge when they diverted data collection from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to the Department of Health and Human Service (HHS), further fracturing health data collection systems where some health departments still share data by fax. 

In April 2020, Apple and Google teamed up in a joint venture to create a bluetooth exposure notification protocol that developers could use to build contact tracing apps for smartphones, but as spring turned to summer, these apps never caught on. 

Experts said a lack of organization and coordination from the federal government left states too under-resourced and ill-equipped to develop apps on their own, all while citizens questioned the transparency and privacy of big-tech backed data collection plans. Meanwhile, the U.S. struggled to develop rudimentary protocols for collecting fundamental virus data. 

“At the very beginning, there should have been a very clear structure,” Lee said. “This is how everyone throughout the country should report cases. This is how quickly they need to do it and this is where they need to send it to.” 

When that didn’t come, Lee said the U.S. lost an opportunity to get a handle on key information—like where the virus was spreading, where testing was occurring, and where it was needed. These collection efforts only started happening thanks to the work of independent operators. 

“Because of the lack of centralized organizations, there were different groups that rose up to try to fill the gaps,” Lee said. “For instance, there wasn’t any reporting of how many cases are occurring or how many deaths [are] occurring, and as a result, things like the Johns Hopkins website emerged and the New York Times data dashboard.” 

This disjunction led health experts and the general public to rely on volunteer and independent data collection efforts like that from Johns Hopkins and The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project. Elsewhere, the CDC and the HHS have collected data on COVID-19 hospitalization.

Despite the efforts, a large portion of data remains too siloed and fragmented for stakeholders to rely on it to build models responding to the pandemic. In their place, a bevy of academic researchers and private companies have launched their own databases to integrate health records and data. 

How HACERA got involved in blockchain during the COVID pandemic

Jonathan Levi realized he could apply the HACERA blockchain infrastructure to aggregate and consolidate COVID data after he saw how outdated data management strategies were, leading to data errors in the U.K. alongside the U.S. 

During a recent online chat with Nautilus, his face shrunk to a small rectangle as he shared his computer screen to share an example. He pulled up a report from June 2020. A technical glitch led to 15,841 positive results not being reported by Public Health England (PHE). He switched tabs and explained how the glitch occurred. PHE was storing health data in columns instead of rows, a method that overburdened and crashed Excel since it had to read data both vertically and horizontally across the spreadsheet. 

“It’s like they’re using Excel 2003,” he said. 

He moved on to show how small discrepancies in the way countries around the world stored data can overcomplicate otherwise simple processes. 

“Imagine you want to run a chart of looking at COVID data based on country and current population size … you can’t use this from 2018, 2019,” he said, pointing to population numbers on his screen that some countries used to organize COVID-19 data. “You then have to go to the World Bank and ask them for a data set. They will give it to you for free, however you can not match the data between countries, because everything else is categorized differently.” 

These failures led Levi to gather his company virtually early in the pandemic to set a new objective. They set out to use the HACERA infrastructure to integrate publicly available coronavirus data into a decentralized network that could be accessed by anyone. 

“How about we go and fetch all this data, from any public available data source and make it very easy for people to run models against this data,” said Levi. “Let’s do something that is clear for the machine that will allow people to run machine learning and algorithms at scale. This is our hello world.” 

MiPasa aggregates anonymized health data from publicly available sources like the CDC and World Health Organization, along with local public health agencies and licensed private facilities. Blockchain ensures the data is immutable and that version updates can easily be shared by stakeholders without fear of corruption. 

With that, MiPasa creates a comprehensive hub for coronavirus data that both machines and researchers can easily access and scale into models that could assess and precut new coronavirus trends. 

“MiPasa gives you the most complete set of data in the simplest way,” he said. “You can validate data, verify data, you can share data, you can ask questions, and you are encouraged to try stuff on your own.” 

Since launching in April 2020, researchers have used MiPasa to build models assessing global travel risks, optimal lockdown policies that would maximize both health and economic outcomes, and more. 

covid vaccine blockchains
Photo via New York National Guard/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

STATWIG is tracking vaccines and making sure they’re cold enough

Efficient data collection and sharing the info are crucial to an effective vaccine supply chain. In 2009, Bruce Y. Lee helped the U.S. government develop delivery plans for the H1N1 influenza vaccines. He said there are primarily three different types of data in a vaccine supply chain: demand data, supply data, and logistics data.

Demand data tracks who needs the vaccine, who’s received it, and when and what type of vaccine they received. Supply data tracks a vaccine life at every step from when it’s produced to when it’s administered into arms. Logistics data covers the rest, from vaccine appointments to hospital staffing to the storage capacity of individual vaccine distribution centers. 

What’s vital is not just collecting this data but ensuring that there is active communication between it and stakeholders at every step of the supply chain. In the U.S., that’s been the biggest challenge during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“There needs to be active communication of this information across the entire supply chain,” Bruce Y. Lee said. “The problems that I’m seeing is there’s a general lack of coordination at the national level for the supply chain. Really important parts of the supply chain have been left up the states.” 

Similar to the data issues afflicting the early pandemic response in the U.S., there was a paucity of direction and federal management of the vaccine supply chain. Part of Operation Warp Speed was the development of Tiberius, an online tracking system for vaccine allocation and distribution.

Tiberius monitors details of where the vaccine is moving and who’s received injections, but the information can only be accessed by authorities at the federal level. That leaves other crucial stakeholders on the front line, like local healthcare workers, in the dark. 

The country lacks a digital platform that can integrate and track all vaccine data, while also matching hospital demand with supply and connecting them to institutions with surpluses. For hospitals already overstretched by the raging pandemic, this has been problematic.

Healthcare workers need to go through an intermediary to get real-time updates on incoming vaccine shipments, a process that consumes time and energy. Last-minute delays in a vaccine shipment are only reported to hospitals late, leading to a backlog in scheduling and appointments. Crucial distribution data is lagging, computers are crashing, and communication is breaking down between stakeholders in the chain.

Many of these problems were anticipated by Sid Chakravarthy when he created Statwig, a company that harnesses blockchain and Internet of Things technology to create more efficient and equitable vaccine supply chains. 

In 2019, UNICEF, the world’s largest supplier of vaccines, announced it’d be investing $100,000 in the startup as part of its annual innovation fund. Soon Statwig was also selected to Gavi’s Infuse Program, a key boost that introduced the company to major stakeholders in the vaccine supply chain. 

Gavi has made headlines of late with new reports suggesting that billions of people in poorer countries might not be vaccinated until 2024. The report cites cost, delays, and shortages as key drivers for the inequity. In year’s past, the WHO estimated that 50% of vaccines are at risk of being wasted globally each year due to logistics, cold chain failures, and shipment-related issues. Chakravarthy says another 10% of vaccines in the traditional supply chain end up being fake. 

While Chakravarthy is clear that his technology can’t resolve supply issues, he believes that blockchain and the Internet of Things can mitigate many of the failures in the supply chain that lead to rampant waste and forgery. 

Chakravarthy says failures would decrease if those managing the supply chain could react to data in real time. In the past, that’s been difficult because each stakeholder stores data differently, they rarely communicate, and they’re often too incompatible to paint a complete live picture of the supply chain.

“The stakeholders have no clue where these failures are happening, how they’re happening, and how they can prevent them,” Chakravarthy told Nautilus. “The data is logged away in silos. Everyone is tracking but only small segments of the supply chain. The manufacturer tracks it when it’s in their custody. Then it’s handed over to someone else and then they start tracking, but there are a lot of gaps because everyone is tracking in a different way.” 

In these traditional supply chains, it’s difficult to get a read on the temperature health of individual vaccine doses since stakeholders collect and read data according to the temperature of entire facilities, trucks, and airplanes rather than that of individual doses.

With the Pfizer and Modern vaccine requiring temperatures of minus-70 degrees Celsius and minus-20 degrees Celsius, respectively, while being stored, Chakravarthy says it’s absolutely vital to better track vaccines so healthcare workers can understand what they’re working with on an individual dose level. 

“If you look at it from the perspective of a nurse, you want to know whether or not the vaccine in your hand is good or bad,” Chakravarthy says. “How would the temperature of a truck or a warehouse or anything else help you determine if the vaccine is good or not?”

Statwig simplifies the process by mapping any available data on a vaccine dose to its unique serial code. Using the Internet of Things technology, Statwig connects sensors to data reading transmitters at each touch point in the supply chain, allowing real time information to be sent to the cloud as vaccine shipments move in and out. 

At each touchpoint, stakeholders scan batches of QR codes which update data by groups that can be narrowed down to the specific histories of the doses contained within. 

This allows supply chain managers to get alerts when something goes wrong, making it easier and quicker to identify the problem and to stop it from happening again. 

“We are ensuring vaccines are safe at a dose level, that it hasn’t expired, it’s a real product and it’s of good quality,” Chakravarthy said. “Our vision is for every dose of vaccine we should be able to provide that information to the various stakeholders, especially the end beneficiary, the end consumer who is going to receive that vaccine.” 

As of now, Statwig will help track supply chains in 25 countries, many of which correlate to those within Gavi’s vaccine alliance. 

While the U.S. has yet to adopt an overarching blockchain tool to manage its COID vaccine supply chain, there has been a widespread increase in the adoption of Internet of Things technologies to help establish real-time data on the condition and health of vaccines as it moves through the chain. 

Despite their promise, blockchain- and Internet of Things-powered solutions to the COVID pandemic’s “data crisis” have yet to be fully deployed. Some cite cost as a hurdle and that the pandemic hit with stakeholders still lacks the infrastructure needed to fully implement and integrate the technologies. 

“There’s a lot of data infrastructure needs we’ve been clamoring for since the 2009 pandemic, but many times it fell on deaf ears because it wasn’t viewed as urgent,” said Lee. “We were saying, ‘No, look, this is going to be a problem. We’ll have to think about solutions because this will not be the last pandemic that will occur.’”

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