Applications and Use Cases

Can Blockchain Help Researchers Develop a COVID-19 Vaccine Faster?


May 15, 2020

With the U.S. now well into its third month of business closures and distancing mandate, the question becomes when and how to re-open businesses and allow people to resume their normal activities – and to what extent should those activities be allowed.

While many tech companies are dumping resources into monitoring and tracking technologies, the greatest question still is around the timing of a reliable and available vaccine.  By and large, that seems to be the assurance the general public is looking for in order to really bring things back to whatever normal will be.

The problem is that, while some officials are promoting a fast-tracked vaccine that will be available before the end of the year, most experts believe mid-2021 is a best-case scenario and an incredible feat of medicine.  Let’s not forget there is no vaccine for other coronaviruses, either, so it’s not an easy task.

There are hundreds of vaccines in various phases of development currently throughout the world.  The problem is that, in many cases, the research is being done without collaboration with other labs and, even where partnerships exist, information sharing is challenged by a number of barriers.  These include, lack of trust that sharing will be reciprocated, research ownership rights concerns, confidentiality issues, and of course, conflicting public and private interests.

A report released this week suggests blockchain could be the solution to increased sharing because of its transparency and immutability. 

Blockchain could help address root causes by underpinning the outbreak R&D ecosystem as a common, privacy-preserving, inviolable, and verifiable layer for records of objects and identities (e.g., resources, individuals, and organizations), rules (e.g., access permissions and ABS provisions), and events (e.g., access and benefit-sharing). 

Blockchain-facilitated sharing to advance outbreak R&D

Trustful sharing

A blockchain-based R&D system would allow participants to register their work with time-stamped proof of existence and ownership, visible to all parties, but not changeable by them.  Conceptually, the  work records would exist on the blockchain, while the data itself would live in off-chain repositories with access controls.  Smart contracts could be used to manage access credentials and requirements, ensuring data integrity.

Traceability, interoperability, defragmentation

Access to data would be managed through time-stamped logs and decentralized identifiers combined with smart contracts, to ensure  and smart contracts, creating an auditable trail of access and activity.  This would also create secure interconnections between disparate data storage systems for increased  accuracy and collaboration.  One of the keys here is the blockchain system would create a verifiable record of all events should any disputes or discrepancies arise.

Facilitating compliance

The use of smart contracts to enforce access policies will help ensure adherence with compliance requirements and reduce to cost of compliance-related procedures, for both public and protected resources.

Mapping R&D contributors

The blockchain records would also serve to track contributors to research efforts without requiring additional manual administrative efforts, and would ensure accuracy of contribution records based on the immutable records and access authorizations.

While the authors acknowledge there are some technical and legal issues with developing a blockchain platform for pandemic R&D, the model would allow for more rapid collaboration and drive faster response to pandemics – like the COVID-19 crisis the world is currently battling.  This is not a problem that  can be solved at a national level – the global nature of both business and consumer activity puts it in a global context.  As a result, global response is required, and globally a coordinated, collaborative effort to find a vaccine is a logical approach.




Edited by Erik Linask

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