Can Technology Help China’s Public Health Crisis?

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In the week since China’s expanding vaccine scandal began, technologists and innovators have started to pursue hands-on solutions to country’s latest public heath crisis.

Health officials withheld some 252,600 substandard DPT vaccines manufactured by Changchun Changsheng Biotech Company, a Shenzhen-listed company, after an unannounced inspection on July 15. The news threw the country into an outrage and became one of the most watched topics on China’s social media during the last week.

DPT vaccine
DPT vaccine. Image Source: RxDx.

DPT vaccines are compulsory for Chinese children. The substandard vaccines came from China’s second largest vaccine manufacturer, which occupies a quarter of the market share, Xinhua news agency reported. President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang demanded a thorough investigation into the vaccine scandal, which has already resulted in the detention of 14 local government officials.

Social media posts about the company’s history of forging documents and violating regulations kept disappearing soon after their publication and re-publication.

Technologists turned to Etherum blockchain technology to ensure the information remained available as long as possible. On July 22, information on the Etherum website showed that someone sent himself 0.001 Ethereum ($0.47). The input data box contained the text of the social media post, which is now part of the blockchain’s public ledger.

Disappeared article has been published on Etherum website.
Disappeared article has been published on Etherum website.

Activists used the same technology to protect evidence of sexual harassment exposed in a letter by a student at the Peking University School of Foreign Languages in April.

But blockchain technology could have a better role to play, as Chinese blockchain expert Li Xiaolai pointed out. China could introduce it to the field of medicine to maintain records of producers, distributors, regulators and patients, and to keep these safe from tampering.

Each vaccine could be regarded as a node. By utilizing RFID tags to record and read data, vaccinators could have private keys and doctors public keys. These could record the whole process from production to vaccination, ensuring that information is correct and transparent while eliminating the chance of fraud.

Vaccines normally must pass national inspection to enter the supply chain. Official detection technology can be imagined as a public chain, and open detection technology can be applied to organizations involved in the public chain, such as local health bureaus and academic institutions.

Rules can be written using smart contracts, and once the organizations participating in the public chain complete the review, tokens can be awarded as rewards, similar to the concept of Bitcoin mining.

Li said if all aspects of vaccine circulation, from beginning to end, used a blockchain solution for open and transparent accounting, most vaccine problems could be solved. It would be trivial to track responsibility. Transparent disclosure throughout the process could minimize corruption, which may in turn reduce the cost of circulation. The families of children who are harmed by bad vaccines would be more able to collect evidence to support their claims and avoid a label of “accidental death.”

Alipay, Wechat and Baidu add function for parents to directly check the quality of vaccines by name or barcode.
Alipay, Wechat and Baidu add function for parents to directly check the quality of vaccines by name or barcode.

Technology companies also dedicated their efforts to help parents who were enraged and in despair after the incidents. On July 24, several tech giants whose applications have hundreds of millions of users added in-app functions so parents could directly check the quality of vaccines by name or barcode.

Participating Internet products include Alibaba-developed applications such as Alipay, Taobao, T-mall and AliHealth, as well as search and social media products from Baidu, Tencent and Sohu.

China had 751 million Internet users, the most of any country, at the end of June 2017. New Internet applications are expected to account for up to 22 percent of China’s GDP growth through 2025, which means 10 trillion yuan in annual GDP will be at stake in 2025 alone.

Although blockchain technology and the Internet of Things can ensure information is unchanged and transparent, the root of the problem is willful fraud. If an open and transparent system is still fed fraudulent input, the fundamental problems may go unresolved.

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