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IBM Believes Blockchain Could Help Vaccinate The World

Fortune calls “vaccinating the global population” against COVID-19 as one of the most “immense and logistical challenges humanity has ever faced.” According to the magazine, some are looking to artificial intelligence and blockchain technology can help with the task.

“This is about trying to solve the biggest data puzzle of our lifetime,” says Jason Kelley, who heads blockchain services for IBM. 

IBM is working with companies trying to help U.S. hospitals and state governments manage the limited supplies of vaccines now available, according to Tim Paydos, the company’s global manager for government industry. IBM’s Watson Health Analytics software has been used to combine zip-code-level data on demographics and health status with information attitudes towards vaccinations to forecast demand and ensure vaccines are equitably distributed. 

When a distribution network is up and running, AI and technologies like blockchain could track how it functions and doses as they move through the supply chain. IBM’s “object-based” supply chain management software tracks the location of every vaccine vial in as close to real time as possible, matching the vial to the people vaccinated with the doses in that vial. The software tracked supplies of personal protective equipment earlier in the pandemic, according to Paydos. 

Celonis, a software company that helps businesses build dashboards to track business processes, has developed software used to track PPE for health system customers. It is now hoping that it can be adopted to handle vaccines, too. 

Machine learning, furthermore, can predict potential distribution bottlenecks and perhaps even suggest ways to work around them. The US-based technology and business process outsourcing firm Genpact developed software for its pharmaceutical industry customers to help them track batches of drugs in the supply chain. 

Eric Sandor, the head of Genpact’s pharmacovigilance AI business, says COVID-19 vaccines will be challenging because different batches may be produced by various contract manufacturers, causing variations. 

The COVID-19 vaccines will be particularly challenging, says Eric Sandor, the head of Genpact’s pharmacovigilance A.I. business, because different batches may be produced by different contract manufacturers at different facilities, resulting in variations among them, and there may be further issues around the storage of individual lots of vials from within each batch. Keeping track of exactly which lot and batch was used to vaccinate each individual may be critical to tracking any safety issues with the vaccine, Sandor says.

Much of the supply chain software was designed to be used within a single organization. The COVID-19 vaccine needs to be tracked supplies through a chain controlled by various parties–such as drug manufacturers, courier companies, hospitals and pharmacies, and even various branches of government–which use different software. Some of these companies might even be competitors who don’t want to share data or are unable to share data due to regulatory, security or compliance issues. 

IBM’s Kelley thinks blockchain can solve this problem by providing a trusted, secure, and verifiable record of the chain of custody for every vial of vaccine that could be used by every organization involved in the process. IBM is discussing with drug manufacturers a blockchain-based solution to create “a minimally viable ecosystem.”