Coronavirus Epidemic: Preventable with Blockchain

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The 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) is a new coronavirus that healthcare workers first detected in Wuhan, China. Currently, the virus has infected over 37500 people in at least 24 countries. So far, 814 people have died. Coronaviruses are not new to humanity. The MERS and SARS coronavirus epidemics have demonstrated how dangerous this type of virus can be.

All three of these epidemic coronaviruses are zoonotic, meaning they started in animals and made the jump to humans. This type of disease is more dangerous because humans have not been exposed to the disease before. Therefore, our immune response is weakened. Now, 2019-nCoV has surpassed the death toll of the SARS epidemic, making it one of the most deadly coronaviruses of recent years. 

Failing Systems of Prevention

Preventing, and controlling new diseases that have epidemic potential is a major public health activity. Many surveillance systems are used to track potential new diseases and control existing diseases. Unfortunately, many of these surveillance systems are outdated, hard to access, or inaccurate. Fortunately, blockchain offers a way to improve many public health activities associated with preventing and controlling diseases.

China’s current disease surveillance system is an updated version of a system that is five decades old. Originally, the system required health officials to report disease incidence by mailing handwritten cards to central health offices. Since the SARS outbreak, the system has transitioned online. The Chinese Ministry of Health receives and controls all of the data. The system is centralized and is therefore not accessible by outside organizations. Although sequences of the virus have been released to aid in treatment, the surveillance data is still not available.

Problems with Centralized Healthcare Surveillance

Biodata can be used by governments to discriminate against citizens. Additionally, unreleased data can be integral to preventing and controlling diseases. This is the problem with centralized surveillance of any kind. Regardless of the central authority, there will always be potential circumstances where the data can be used for nonethical purposes. The usual question with surveillance is “who do we trust the most to interpret and report this information” Blockchain provides another option. This trustless system requires no central authority. Additionally, multiple nodes in a permissioned blockchain have the ability to share and report vital data. 

The current novel Coronavirus outbreak has demonstrated this same issue. Early reports of a new virus were prosecuted. Dr. Li Wenliang issued a warning to his medical school classmates on December 30th. Dr. Li was detained by police and told to sign a statement that he had participated in illegal behavior by issuing his warning. Dr. Li later died from 2019-nCoV. The current infection and death statistics are speculated to be much higher due to underreporting. Underreporting can be caused by many disruptions in the system. A shortage of testing kits reduces the number of confirmed cases, and deaths can be attributed to other causes. Unfortunately, it is impossible to know just how serious this outbreak is without access to a secure, decentralized surveillance system. 

Blockchain Healthcare Surveillance: Preventing Future Outbreaks

Diseases like 2019-nCoV can be difficult to track and control. Fortunately, a blockchain healthcare surveillance system can provide the means to prevent and control future outbreaks. A permissioned blockchain surveillance system would allow local and national health agencies to access the surveillance data. In addition, global organizations like the World Health Organization could access the data. Because the system is decentralized and secured through blockchain, data remains secure and multiple organizations can report the data. 

Political Complications

Diseases can spread quickly across political borders. Traditional systems run by governments can miss outbreaks because they happen across borders.  A decentralized system is the fastest way to report outbreaks. With a blockchain healthcare surveillance system, local practitioners can receive real-time information on surrounding areas, regardless of governmental or political barriers. Increasing transparency will result in more accurate reporting and more efficient responses. 

Implementation

Such a system is relatively simple to implement. A blockchain application is low-cost and can be downloaded on any mobile device. Chief complaints and prescription data inputted to the system could trigger automated alerts when a certain threshold is reached. Additionally, laboratory test results can trigger an alert. Because blockchain is decentralized, it is extremely scalable. A global healthcare blockchain system could easily reach areas where connectivity is poor, and costs must be kept low. 

Other Blockchain Applications

Zoonotic diseases like 2019-nCoV could be caught in animals before they make the jump to humans if veterinary field records were kept on a blockchain surveillance system. Because many animals are migratory, a decentralized system would allow for greater collaboration and transparency across the world. Diseases could be flagged and eliminated in animal populations before they make the jump to humans. 

Vaccines, treatments, and medical equipment are all integral to epidemic responses. Securing the supply chains of these valuable resources through blockchain could have life-saving effects. Blockchain has already proven its success as a supply chain management tool. A blockchain system could ensure vaccines, testing equipment, and other relief efforts are sent to the right places at the right times and in the quantities needed. Combined with a surveillance system, a blockchain supply management system could change the way the world responds to epidemics. 

 

Katie Rapley is a student at Tulane University studying Entrepreneurial Management and English. She is passionate about finding creative solutions to real problems through entrepreneurship and is especially excited about the applications of blockchain.

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