In light of COVID-19, both private and public industries are looking for ways to improve the collection and sharing of essential data. But, in their current state, there are major infrastructure and privacy barriers to overcome. 

One question is, how can we improve the way that medical data accurately and securely shared globally? One solution would be to apply blockchain technology in order to keep track of medical records and COVID-19 testing. Using blockchain could also improve the safety of data, as well as maintain the accuracy of test results. 

In 2018 at the World Economic Forum, the Redesigning Trust: A Blockchain Deployment Tool Kit was deployed. It is headed by Nadia Hewett and has been deployed by multiple public and private industries. The goal of the project is to help current supply chains, of varying sizes, integrate blockchain to improve operations. 

So what is the state of blockchain applications now? And how could deploying blockchain potentially make tracking COVID-19 easier?

Why Blockchain

Blockchain is considered by its supporters as the Holy Grail of solving connectivity and recordkeeping issues. Blockchain is the technology behind the success of Bitcoin, and many other cryptocurrencies that have followed, as well as the Ethereum project.

But Bitcoin and blockchain are not synonymous. Bitcoin was simply the first successful integration of blockchain technology with a digital coin. The success lies in tamper-proof encryption, which allows people to securely share transactions with complete strangers.

The genius behind the technology is in the public storage of encrypted data. But the utility is that it is nothing more than a public ledger of transactions. And it is this method of public storage that food supply chains are quickly jumping on to improve the movement and safety of food products. 

Companies such as Starbucks, Walmart, and Microsoft’s Azure are leading the way in applying blockchain to everyday supply chain problems. Both companies are using blockchain services to track every step of their products, and particularly in Walmart’s case, to improve food safety management

Food Supply Chains During A Pandemic 

Even during the best of times, annually, roughly $90 billion of revenue of the $660 billion total revenue is lost to food born illnesses in the United States. The weaknesses of the current food-supply and food-distribution network have been highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the US, about half of food purchases made directly from farmers are made by restaurants, hotels, and other businesses that account for the tourist industry. The rest of the food purchases directly from farmers is made by grocers. 

However, as restaurants and hotels closed their doors during COVID-19, the food-supply system has been disrupted. With the challenge and responsibility of making quick changes in business partners and food distribution, farmers have been overwhelmed.

As a result, groceries have experienced both major food shortages AND wastage as neither the farmers nor the buyers were able to quickly recalibrate food purchasing in light of the sudden change in consumer needs.

With improved data collection, both farmers and food markets have better information to work with when it comes to food production, purchasing, and then consumer consumption. Improved information about consumer habits leads to improved customer relations, and more importantly, less food waste. 

Food waste is estimated at 168 million metric tonnes each year in North America. While food waste is a concern for all who work in food-supply, it is becoming a much more real concern to wealthy countries such as Canada and the United States in light of the current pandemic. 

Help from the IoT

For parts of the world using blockchain to manage COVID-19 is no longer a hypothetical. As of April 17, IoT blockchain startup Ubirch and Nasdaq-listed Centogene announced a partnership. They have teamed up to formulate a solution for securely handling the results of COVID-19 mass testing.

Blockchain is the ideal technological infrastructure for complying with European data privacy laws. To date, Volkmar Weckesser, the CIO for Centogene has collected epidemiologic, phenotypic, and genetic data for 500,000 patients worldwide. The plan is to coordinate these results with Uirch’s blockchain portal.

One of the most promising solutions to slow/stop the spread of COVID-19 is through the collection and analysis of mass data. And aside from the challenge of actually collecting the data through mass testing, another real issue is maintaining the privacy of sensitive health data. 

Advocates of blockchain applications believe that the encryption used in blockchains solves any real privacy problem. With blockchain, test results could be accessed anywhere in a forgery-proof manner. This would provide important information about how to proceed with testing, hospitalization, and managing the economic impact. 

Privacy and Encryption

One of the most problematic issues is raised by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This is a landmark European Union-wide legal framework for the protection of personal data privacy, which took effect in May 2018. And there is a concern if blockchain adheres to this protection regulation.

One such problem raised by the GDPR is the ‘right to be forgotten.’ This provision requires that personal information on the internet can be erased. This is for the protection of individual privacy. 

Blockchain networks are immutable, which means that data cannot be changed or removed. The solution developed by Ubrich and Centogene ostensibly focuses on GDPR conformity:

“According to the highest data protection standards, user data is only stored as hash values on the blockchain and cannot be interpreted without user authorization.” 

Despite the privacy concerns of many, the Estonian government has moved all bureaucratic processes and public records onto their digital platform, powered by blockchain. E-citizenship is now a given in the modest nation, and digital trust is an essential tenant of the technology and of the country’s digitized ethos.

The Centogene Solution 

Along with a blockchain portal, a private project from Centogene has also developed a SARS-CoV-2 test. The data is uploaded to the blockchain, which is then used to directly seal the test results virtually. Individuals are then provided with a verifiable blockchain certificate, and the certificate indicates a positive or negative test result for the virus.

Centogene is applying blockchain-based on industrial models used in supply-chain services and IoT. 

“This form of distributed security has already proven itself in other industrial environments, the IoT-based procedure is ideally suited to secure and verify medical data.”

By collecting and storing data from the SARS-CoV-2 test, the company also plans to use its blockchain for proof-of-immunity requirements, based on antibody testing. With a greater understanding of the movement of the virus as well as those who are healthy, it will be easier to safely move to lightened lockdown restriction.

CARES And The United States

In the midst of COVID-19, the US Congress has proposed 32 bills that are related to blockchain and the burgeoning digitization of finances. Rather than track and trace the virus, the U.S Treasury is urging the private sector to apply blockchain innovations to assist in timely government benefits of the CARES Act benefits.

To expedite receipt of CARES funds, for those who do not normally file tax returns, the U.S. Treasury has offered a remedy to receive their money on the IRS website. However, many Americans remain unbanked, particularly those who have low incomes, and therefore accessing relief is a major hurdle. The current online method involves providing your name, address, as well as a bank-routing, and account number.

This is yet another example where blockchain applications could support global needs in the time of the COVID-19 crisis. 

How to Use Blockchain Now

While the realistic roll-out of blockchain to track COVID-19 is anyone’s guess; there is no doubt that the technology is available and ready to be harnessed. 

The 2018 World Economic Forum and Nadia Hewet anticipated the problem of effectively applying blockchain. As such, Hewet heads the “Blockchain Tool Kit” project. The tool kit offers a step-by-step process for how public and private projects alike can start to shift certain processes to a shared, distributed ledger using blockchain. The tool kit includes solutions to both the technical and non-technical issues that users may have. 

One report found that 92% of all blockchain projects were dormant or dead. The tool kit is designed to help both executives and developers with supply chain needs. When it started the project targeted fossil fuels and the food industry in particular. 

Although the tool kit is aimed at supply-chain issues, it is relevant to the COVID crisis. Blockchain offers real-time information about where supplies might be bottlenecked and helps to anticipate product shortages. Blockchain tracking also ensures that food is always at the legally required temperature. Even when it was out of any single member’s control, a record is kept and traced.

Tracking the Coronavirus

It is clear that blockchain has many useful applications for supply chain issues, but what about the COVID pandemic?

Here are several ways that blockchain could help improve data collection and accurate communication.

Frontline workers and emergency responders could potentially use existing technology such as Frontline SMS. This allows people to report on missing or low supplies to a common website. The collective data could be shared to show locations with shortages. This information would improve government and health facilities actors by increasing access to the real-time needs of frontline workers. 

Another example is the mapping tool Open Street Map. In countries with high densities and cramped living, such as China, India, and New York, close living quarters are a genuine problem. 

In China, stadiums were converted into mass quarantine centers, which helped stem the risk of infection within family groups. The same could be done with schools and churches, giving people safe spaces to self-isolate.

Open Street Map could help identify useful locations and coordinate partnerships with municipalities, businesses, and community organizations. Humanitarian Open Street Map is already mobilizing its volunteer mapping communities.

The real issue is the fast spread of COVID-19, which means that peer-review scientific communities cannot move fast enough to disseminate information. This has led to doctors using social media to share information in real-time. 

While this is an excellent use of social media platforms, there is a real risk of information being tampered with and misinformation making its way into the mix. All of which could be avoided with blockchain encryption. 

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