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INNOVATING OUR WAY OUT OF A ONCE-IN-A-CENTURY PANDEMIC

May 3, 2020

Since first emerging in late December 2019, the COVID-19 disease has infected millions on every continent except Antarctica, killed hundreds of thousands and brought entire economies to a standstill. With no sign that this pandemic will end anytime soon, individuals, businesses and governments alike have realised that life cannot go on as it always has.

Novel problems need novel solutions, and the real-time emergencies and challenges posed by COVID-19 are no exception. Fortunately, technology has improved greatly since the last once-in-a-century pandemic that was the Spanish flu, giving the world more tools at its disposal to rise up to the new normal.

Take blockchain, for example. Even before the first COVID-19 case was reported, blockchain had already been in use to securely store confidential healthcare data: Singapore healthcare startup WhiteCoat integrates blockchain into its mobile app to prevent leaks of users’ medical records.

 

WhiteCoat offers telemedicine services where users can consult qualified doctors remotely via a mobile app, and have any prescribed medicine delivered straight to their doorstep. It is currently enabling 50,000 video medical consultations in collaboration with leading insurance provider AIA Singapore.

 

To learn how blockchain’s ability to serve as an unalterable, decentralised ledger could help address COVID-19-related challenges, we speak with Yi Ming Ng, Managing Partner at blockchain accelerator Tribe Accelerator. Ng shares his thoughts on this, as well as how innovation could help tide us through the current global health crisis.

 

Storing trusted COVID-19 data for contact tracing purposes

Whether it is the number of local daily cases or drugs that could help COVID-19 patients recover quicker, ever more COVID-19 data is produced on a daily basis.

But with such data coming from countless sources with varying degrees of credibility, sifting out authentic data from the dubious becomes a frustrating affair for parties who need accurate data for decision-making and research.

A blockchain solution can help plug this gap: trusted data from individuals, state authorities and health institutions can be stored in the blockchain to prevent them from being tampered with, and retrieved for future use as necessary.

For example, blockchain may be used to store healthcare workers’ health and safety credentials, and track their movements through medical facilities.

Then, “if in case [one] worker tests positive, the system has a blockchain record of every ward the healthcare worker has visited, [and can help contact tracers] detect where the infection was picked up,” says Ng.

Such a contact tracing strategy could also be deployed for the general population, whose medical records could also be securely stored on the blockchain.

 

Collaborating in the race to develop a vaccine

To date, there has not been any proven vaccine for COVID-19. Organisations and scientists all over the world have been working tirelessly to develop one, but many are working independently of each other, without sharing their research with their peers.

This could stem from a concern of others taking credit for their findings, among other reasons. In any case, such working in silos could result in the duplication of efforts and the lengthening of time taken to produce a vaccine.

While the World Health Organization has encouraged researchers to make voluntary declarations of collaboration, blockchain could potentially eliminate trust issues altogether.

With blockchain’s ability to immutably credit findings to their original researchers, “multiple biotech and pharmaceutical firms, small or large, can collaborate and share their findings without the fear of losing their IP rights or their competitive advantage,” says Ng.

Such joining of forces by the greatest scientific minds could help shorten the world’s wait time for a vaccine, and expedite the vaccine’s introduction into society.

 

Blockchain: a potent force for the future

When a vaccine for COVID-19 is eventually found, the pandemic will start to end. But this does not mean blockchain’s utility in healthcare, or other sectors, will cease.

 

For example, trading technology platform DiMuto, has tapped on the technology to track the origins of food items from seed to plate.  

This brings together the ecosystem of food producers, suppliers, manufacturers and retailers, in turn increasing supply chain trust and transparency in the global agri-food sector.

Such trust is a “huge differentiator” for suppliers, according to Ng, as “consumers become more enlightened and savvy with their food choices”.

With this pandemic, Ng believes that “there cannot be a greater pressing need” for an acceleration of the adoption of blockchain by society.

“Blockchain as a technology is open and collaborative, and the key to maximising the technology’s potential in any situation or to solve any problem is ‘collaboration’ or ‘integration’,” says Ng.

In this regard, Ng believes that intentional blockchain knowledge exchanges between technology evangelists and businesses, along with the nurturing of a talent pool with specialised blockchain skill sets, will go a long way in facilitating “full-blown blockchain integration”.

 

Forging ahead amid crisis

While it may be difficult to see past the COVID-19 crisis, Ng encourages tech startups—even those not presently involved in blockchain technology—struggling in current times to “[keep] an eye on the light at the end of the tunnel”.

This includes keeping a close watch on current market opportunities and challenges, and challenging themselves on how they can “reinvent or recharge [their] business and product[s] to meet these needs”. At the same time, cash management issues need to be managed, along relationships with employees, customers and partners. 

Lastly, Ng urges tech startups to “take the future roads with a renewed sense of purpose”, adding that “[t]his crisis might even prove to be the catalyst for the next wave of innovation in the technology space”.

“As long as your tech business seeks to solve the problem areas in this world, it will always remain relevant.”

Stay tuned for SFF x SWITCH 2020, as we bring you the latest in the startup and innovation space.