Blockchain to coordinate sharing and cooperation in the fight against infectious diseases

In an increasingly mobile and expeditious world, outbreaks of known or emerging infectious diseases are a real and unavoidable threat. For this reason, it’s vital that we have the right systems in place to quickly detect and effectively respond to new outbreaks. According to a new publication in Science Magazine authored by a group of researchers at Vrije Universiteit (VU) Amsterdam (including members of the Triall initiative) and the Center for Infectious Disease Control of RIVM (Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment), recent developments in blockchain-enabled technology could be part of the solution.

As outlined in the Science publication and in a covering press release by VU Amsterdam, sharing of research data and materials (such as genetic codes of the pathogen) plays a critical role in responding to outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases. Swift sharing of these resources among scientists, governments, and companies worldwide is essential for the design and implementation of effective public health interventions, and for research and development (R&D) on targeted vaccines, diagnostics, and drugs. However, efficient international collaboration does not always turn out to be self-evident, as illustrated by the researchers using examples from previous outbreaks, such as SARS, MERS, and Zika.

Barriers to efficient collaboration
Mark van der Waal (VU & Triall) and Carolina dos Santos Ribeiro (VU & RIVM), both first authors of the Science publication titled “Blockchain-facilitated sharing to advance outbreak R&D”, argue that there are barriers to the sharing of data and materials, and thus to efficient collaboration. These barriers seem to stem from a lack of mutual trust, a lack of clarity about intellectual property rights, and conflicting public, private, and academic interests. For example, scientists and companies may have an interest in securing scientific publications or patents, and countries may be concerned about the political or economic sensitivity of epidemiological data. The sharing of research data is therefore often sensitive. In addition, exchange of data and materials is subject to complex laws and regulations that can hamper rapid collaboration.

“There are barriers to the sharing of data and materials, and thus to efficient collaboration. These seem to stem from a lack of mutual trust, a lack of clarity about intellectual property rights, and conflicting public, private, and academic interests,” argue Mark van der Waal and Carolina dos Santos Ribeiro

Blockchain to support existing systems
The researchers explain how recent advances in blockchain technology may be applied to overcome current barriers to R&D sharing and cooperation. They conceptualize a blockchain-based system for efficient resource exchanges between researchers, called ORBI (for ‘outbreak R&D blockchain infrastructure’), combining several emerging concepts in blockchain and related technologies. The researchers describe how such a system could support and interconnect, rather than supersede existing, well-established systems and practices for storing, sharing, and governing pathogen data and materials. 

Blockchain is presented as a technology that offers a common root layer in which objects and identities, rules and agreements, and network events can be registered by means of cryptographic anchoring. Such a fundament would contribute to traceability, auditability, and smart identity and access management between existing systems and their users. In addition, it could allow automatic monitoring of compliance with rules and agreements between users, without the need for central authorities to keep watch.

The researchers emphasize that designing and implementing a successful ORBI-like system will not be an easy task. For example, many of the technological concepts described are still in their infancy, and there are many different stakeholders worldwide that need to be involved, and many different perspectives that need to be heard. Yet, given the promising range of use cases, further investigating how the technologies discussed can be applied to promote principles of Open Science and rapid, broad, and secure sharing of data in an increasingly complex environment appears to be worthwhile.

Bringing blockchain to a larger audience
Significantly, this appears to be the first time that emerging open standards for blockchain-enabled technologies such as Decentralized Identifiers (DIDs) and Verifiable Credentials are being mentioned explicitly in a scientific journal at this level. Triall sincerely hopes that this will inform a broad stakeholder audience about the relevance of these emerging concepts in blockchain and related technologies. Importantly, these seem to resolve many of the widely felt concerns of early-generation blockchain models. 

A link to the article can be found here.

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