The mass campaign to inoculate millions against COVID-19 was always going to be a monumental challenge. The fact that some vaccines are rendered useless if not kept at ultralow temperatures only complicates matters.
The U.K.’s National Health Service, or NHS, has turned to using blockchain technology to aid the rollout of vaccines, using the system that underpins cryptocurrencies like bitcoin
to monitor the supply and cold storage of shots at two hospitals.
Of the three COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the U.K., the one developed by U.S. drug company Pfizer
and its German partner BioNTech
must be kept at temperatures of -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit). That is colder than most winter days in Antarctica.
The vaccine developed by U.S.-Swedish drug company AstraZeneca
and the University of Oxford can be kept at normal refrigerator temperatures, while the jab from biotech Moderna
must be kept at -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit).
Once thawed, but still refrigerated, the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine is only good for another five days at 2-8 degrees Celsius.
This raises the stakes for efficient logistics when the U.K. is rapidly accelerating its vaccine rollout: more than 4 million people have received the first of two doses, and the government aims to vaccinate 80% of all people over 50 years old and all clinically vulnerable adults by early May.
Two hospitals, in Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwick in central England, are working with blockchain specialists Everyware and Hedera Hashgraph to ensure the vitality of the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine — breaking new ground and paving the way for a wider rollout across the NHS.
Everyware is an asset and equipment monitor and Hedera Hashgraph — backed by companies including plane manufacturer Boeing
and technology companies IBM
and Google, owned by Alphabet
— provides blockchain networks.
The companies are enabling the health system to use a distributed ledger, which is an offshoot of blockchain technology, to accurately track the cold-storage equipment holding the vaccines with Everyware’s sensors and Hedera’s blockchain system.
A distributed ledger is a decentralized and synchronized digital system for sharing data, and is largely immune to problems introduced into tracking systems by human error.
Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin use blockchain’s decentralized public ledger to record encrypted transactions. Hospitals can use the same technology to track sensitive medical assets with unique storage requirements.
Everyware already provides this service to the NHS for chemotherapy drugs, blood, and plasma.
“Monitoring the ongoing temperature of these refrigeration units is critically important, and ensuring the integrity of that data is an equally important part of maintaining trust in the results, and being able to easily share them across the entire vaccine supply chain,” said Tom Screen, Everyware’s technical director.
“Hedera’s distributed ledger technology provides that tamper-proof record-keeping system, making it perfect for recording and validating results efficiently and cost-effectively,” Screen said.