Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) is a new illness that can affect your lungs and airways, as the virus causes illness ranging from the common cold to more severe diseases such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). COVID-19 is a new strain that was discovered in 2019 and has not been previously identified in human beings. Now, it has unleashed massive shock waves among the worldwide health, science, government and business communities, as societies are trying to contain the virus.
While governments across the globe are working in collaboration with local authorities and health-care providers to track, respond to and prevent the spread of disease caused by the coronavirus, health experts are turning to advanced analytics, and artificial intelligence to augment current efforts to prevent further infection.
Currently, the scale and velocity at which the coronavirus is spreading are proving difficult to manage because the regional clustering of the outbreak has moved across the world.
However, data and analytics have proved to be useful in combating the spread of disease, and the federal government has access to ample data on the U.S. population’s health and travel as well as the migration of both domestic and wild animals, all of which can be useful in tracking and predicting disease trajectory. Machine learning’s ability to consider large amounts of data and offer insights can lead to deeper knowledge about diseases and enable U.S. health and government officials to make better decisions throughout the entire evolution of an outbreak.
In this article, let’s see how blockchain can be a useful tool to combat coronavirus.
Tech companies and startups in the industry have recognized this epidemic and started to build a number of blockchain solutions aiming to track drug supply chains, medical supplies, managing medical data, advising citizens and identifying symptoms of infection:
- Donation tracking: Trust has been a major issue throughout the early months of the coronavirus outbreak. Viral images and videos of donated supplies being taken by non-medical personnel have caused an outrage on social media, with many hospitals in affected areas still pleading for more donations. China’s Red Cross has a questionable reputation marred by previous scandals, causing citizens to reconsider their willingness to donate. In response, Hyperchain, the Hangzhou-based blockchain startup, developed a donation-tracking platform that has already attracted $2 million in donations. Donors can see where funds are most urgently needed and then track their donations until they are provided with verification that their donations have been received. Existing donors include New Sunshine Charity Foundation and Yuegou Living Supermarket, while donation recipients include Tangshan People’s Hospital, Jiayu People’s Hospital, and Xiantao No. 1 People’s Hospital in Hubei province, all of which are treating people infected with the coronavirus.
- Insurance claims: Xiang Hu Bao, Ant Financial’s online mutual aid platform, is a blockchain-based collective claim-sharing platform with over 104 million users. One of the newest functions is to process coronavirus claims by helping the firm to reduce paperwork and the need for back-and-forth document delivery to clinics. There is another advantage of blockchain as well – to mitigate the risk of infection from face-to-face contact, as the platform is able to process transactions without human involvement. The platform’s website claims that it has managed to process over 25,000 claims.
- Medical materials supply chain tracking: Alipay, along with the Zhejiang Provincial Health Commission and the Economy and Information Technology Department, has launched a blockchain-based platform that enables users to trace the demand and the supply chains of medical supplies. This included the recording and tracking of epidemic prevention materials, such as masks, gloves and other protective gear. The shortage of facial masks has been one of the biggest challenges in China so far, with the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic planning commission, being tasked with managing the supply. According to the NDRC, daily production is around 15.2 million masks per day, with demand estimated to be between 50 and 60 million units. This dramatic gap between supply and demand has led to a sharp rise in counterfeit production, with 1,560 arrests and 31 million fake face masks already seized in 688 cases in China so far. While it is probably too late to implement major changes, the coronavirus has proven that the medical supply chain remains an area with a legitimate need for blockchain provenance solutions. Steady progress is being made to increase the connectivity of health care infrastructure around the world. Last year in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration approved a multi-state pilot to use blockchain technology to track medication shipments and usage in North Carolina, Indiana, and Tennessee. The goal was to improve supply chain monitoring and quality control while providing data for more targeted inventory and recall management. The project is managed by North Carolina-based Rymedi, a health care blockchain company partnered with Kadena, one of the inaugural companies from JPMorgan Chase’s Blockchain Center of Excellence.
- Outbreak data tracking: Acoer, a blockchain-enabled company, provides health care and life sciences institute with blockchain solutions to easily track the virus and visualize how it is spreading around the world by using an app called HashLog. The coronavirus HashLog dashboard allows researchers, scientists and journalists to easily understand and follow the spread of the virus, as well as its trends over time from a wide set of public data including data from the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. The platform’s blockchain technology ensures that every piece of shared information cannot be manipulated or changed.
- Cross-border payments: Another challenge for charities, governments and health organizations during large-scale disasters is the distribution of cross-border donations and payments. When the United Nations World Food Program introduced blockchain technology for projects, such as distributing aid to vendors in Jordan, arranging money transfers for more than 10,000 Syrian refugees, and auditing beneficiary spending, it managed to reduce bank transfer fees by almost 98%. This would mean that multinational non-profit organizations could save tens of millions of dollars that could be allocated to aid projects instead.
Jim Nasr, the CEO of Acoer, stated:
“HashLog allows for the real-time visualization of coronavirus data and trends. This includes the overall number of cases globally, rates of deaths and recovery per infections (where we have reliable data), cases filtered by country, as well as Google trends by interest and region on coronavirus.”
“With HashLog, our objective is to make data collection automated. The tool provides researchers with dynamic dashboards that change as criteria are filtered in any one widget/dashboard component. It also lets users directly download filtered data from the visualizations.”
4 Ways Government Can Use Blockchain to Track Coronavirus
Government health agencies can leverage blockchain technology in four ways to limit the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases:
- Prediction: As the global human population grows and continues to interact with animals, other opportunities for viruses that originate in animals (like COVID-19) could make the jump from to humans and spread. The U.S. has seen this in recent years, from the recent SARS and MERS viruses to new forms of the flu and even in the 2018 Ebola crisis in West Africa, where it was discovered that the Ebola outbreak resulted from a toddler interacting with bats in a tree stump. The CDC estimates that three out of four new diseases in human beings come from animals, and scientists believe that there are approximately 800,000 unknown animal viruses that could infect human beings. Now, researchers are turning to blockchain to help predict hotspots where new diseases could emerge. The technology can integrate data about known viruses, animal populations, human demographics and cultural/social practices around the world to predict outbreaks. Government and public-health officials can use this data to be proactive and take steps to prevent these kinds of outbreaks, or at minimum, do a better job preparing for them.
- Detection: When previously unknown viruses make the jump to human beings, time becomes a precious resource. The quicker a disease outbreak is detected, the sooner action can be taken to stop the spread and effectively treat the infected population. Blockchain can help here as well. Directors of the National Biosurveillance Integration Center in the Department of Homeland Security developed pilot approaches by using Machine Learning (ML) to mine social media data for indications of unusual flu symptoms. They also examined near-real-time emergency medical services and ambulance data by using ML to look for anomalies in the medical notes as patients were admitted to hospitals. In these instances, blockchain provided not only better detection of an abnormal disease event, but was able to do it faster, weeks before traditional disease reporting would indicate a spike in disease.
- Response: After a disease event is identified, making informed decisions in a timely manner is critical to limiting the impact. Blockchain can integrate travel, population and disease data to predict where and how quickly disease might spread. At DHS, as Directors of the National Biosurveillance Integration Center in the Department of Homeland Security watched for outbreaks of new forms of flu, they leveraged travel, flight and population data around the world and in the U.S. They also used data from the Australasian Flyway, a bird migration route from China to Alaska, to best predict where disease could spread and how they could intervene early on. After the Ebola outbreak, scientists at the Department of Agriculture created a travel-census model that was able to predict the exact county in Texas, and even the likely hospital, where an Ebola case was likely to be found. The model was spot on. In addition to using blockchain to predict disease spread, it can improve the application of current treatment and accelerate the time it takes to develop new treatments. Radiologists are also using blockchain deep learning, machine learning systems that learn from experience with large data sets to make better treatment decisions based on medical imaging. For example, data from chest X-rays of coronavirus patients can serve as input for AI models so physicians can make faster diagnoses. Regarding new treatments, creating vaccines for newly discovered viruses is a difficult and time-consuming process that is laden with trial and error. Blockchain can help in this process by examining data from similar viral diseases and then using that data to predict which types of vaccines and medicines are most likely to be effective.
- Recovery: Once an outbreak is contained or has ended, governments and global health organizations must make decisions about how to prevent or limit outbreaks in the future. ML can be used here too by simulating different outcomes to test and validate policies, public health initiatives, and response plans. In short, blockchain permits policy-makers and health leaders to conduct a host of “what if” analyses that will enable them to make data-driven decisions that have an increased likelihood of being effective.
The economic consequences are still difficult to calculate, but some facts can already be noted: Air France–KLM has disclosed that it had already suffered $200 million in losses due to the virus and that the airline industry had lost about $1 billion in total. Kia Motors has closed all its manufacturing plants in South Korea; Apple has also joined in by suspending stores and factories in China, and New York has announced that it’s spending about $1 million a day fighting the disease. Global commodity markets also shuddered, with the price of oil falling to a record low of $54 per barrel over fears of declining resource consumption in Asian markets.
Fulfilling the Potential
Society is now facing an uphill battle to limit the outbreak’s ramifications, which can provide blockchain technology with a golden opportunity to make a considerable impact. Below are some steps that can be implemented immediately:
- Multinational health organizations should implement a blockchain-based platform that will connect local hospitals and health organizations in potential zones into which the virus may spread.
- Local hospitals will be able to record medical data about patients who show flu- or virus-like symptoms in the form of a public ID (patients will remain non-identifiable).
- This data will be further tracked by the health organizations in order to predict the spread of the virus based on the state of patients’ medical statistics.
- Countries will be able to strengthen their preventive measures in the areas where the virus can potentially spread, for example, increasing the workforce of medical staff, and providing medical supplies.
In addition, testing passengers for symptoms of the virus who travel from countries that have already declared a state of emergency would be another method to receive data for high-risk groups. These passengers will be obligated to visit medical institutions in order to be tested and tracked as mentioned above.
Blockchain systems should extend far beyond monitoring health care data. Many of the deadliest flu outbreaks have come from mistreating livestock. In fact, the world is still battling with the aftermath of the devastating African swine flu outbreak that has wiped out about a quarter of the global pig population.
More organized tracking systems are needed to identify livestock and trace an outbreak before it becomes unmanageable. Besides its obvious use as a traceability tool, blockchain technology could form a link among insurance companies, government compensation, and farmers, allowing preventative measures along the supply chain to be more decisive. Testing and certification could also be linked, giving farmers, health officials and machine learning algorithms accurate data to better understand the risk-level from region to region.
When an outbreak occurs, sharp acumen and a quick reaction are the most important weapons authorities have to oust the problem. It’s not unfamiliar to suggest that during this current coronavirus epidemic, thousands of lives could have been spared and billions of dollars in current and future economic losses saved.
Thus, further improvements toward medical supply chain management, product and vaccine verification, tracking donations, food safety, and insurance processing can better support the global community in its fight against viral containment by making blockchain technology a vital addition in the upcoming decade.