How blockchain can transform life sciences
By Dhannu Daniel, Life Sciences Lead, Accenture ANZ
Tuesday, 30 November, 2021
Merely two years ago, blockchain was hailed as the silver bullet of innovation, thanks to its decentralised and immutable nature and its unique ability to provide unprecedented levels of transparency across the full supply chain.
The driving force of blockchain is its inherent trustworthiness — the guarantee that as long as the majority of the network validates the information posted to the ledger, the information stored on the blockchain is reliable.
As a result, practical applications of the technology across industries have grown steadily, with the global market expected to grow to US$1.6 billion by 2025. While we have made some advances, the full potential of this technology remains largely untapped in Australia today. Australia has the potential to develop a thriving domestic blockchain industry by leveraging and building on our existing competitive advantages, enhancing our expertise and creating jobs. The federal government is urging industries to take full advantage of the economic opportunities the technology presents, as demonstrated by the National Blockchain Roadmap, but there is still a long way to go in encouraging widespread adoption and trust in the technology.
The life sciences sector is one of many that would benefit greatly from accelerated adoption and utilisation of blockchain technology. As the industry continues battling the risk of counterfeit drugs and pressure is mounting to manage pharmaceutical waste and costs, there is a great opportunity for life sciences to demonstrate blockchain’s problem-solving potential and influence broader industrial adoption.
Supply chain fragmentations have made tracking raw materials and its authenticities or origins one of the most complex challenges in life sciences. This is despite the industry’s best efforts to enable functional full chain of custody systems.
Blockchain puts a ‘digital passport’ on any product or raw material, which contains all relevant records of every product component from instructions to patient adherence information. The decentralised nature of blockchain technology has meant that no single organisation or body has ownership over provenance, making it less vulnerable to corruption and tampering. Organisations accessing the products across the life sciences ecosystem benefit from the reassurance of a product’s authenticity, integrity and ultimately improved patient outcomes.
Moving accurate drug information across the supply chain is a critical life science capability. Globally, we have seen regulators like the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implementing further requirements for unique product identifiers to enhance security of products. The goal is to eliminate counterfeit products from the supply chain, increasing end-user safety.
In Australia, we have seen significant investment from Medicines Australia, life sciences companies and broader industry towards designing and maintaining manufacturing facilities to ensure medicines are produced safely at scale for patients. Blockchain can contribute greatly to enhancing product security, by enabling the efficient exchange and serialisation of data across all ecosystem partners, from pharma manufacturers to distributors and dispensers, in a secure and cohesive way.
Another significant efficiency that could be generated by blockchain technology is in the drug recall process. When a recall notification is injected in the blockchain, it can initiate communication and alert messages to affected partners in the ecosystem, allowing all parties to track and verify the defective product.
Some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies lean on a blockchain-based system to track prescription drugs across the supply chain. The system ensures only manufacturers, for example, can commission serial numbers and attach unique identifiers to products. This makes it much more difficult for a counterfeit product to enter the chain at any point in time.
The pandemic and subsequent vaccine rollout has pushed pharma supply chains into the spotlight, with the movement of vaccines across countries, from manufacturers to distributors to recipients being closely monitored by government, media and the public across the globe. The transportation of vaccines requires a strict system of temperature-controlled storage, and pharma companies need to take great care of maintaining refrigeration along the full supply chain journey, as any break in the cold chain can reduce drug efficacies, leading to wastage.
Cold chain logistics are complicated and costly — the pharma industry had an anticipated spend of $21.3 billion between 2020 and 2024 on cold chain prior to the pandemic. This means that the costs of cold chain logistics are much higher since the onset of COVID-19 and pharma companies are facing increasing pressure to optimise logistics to deliver products quickly and manage costs.
In Australia, we have a good amount of industry regulation to ensure the integrity of the cold chain system, but there is room for further streamlining, such as utilising blockchain to detect logistical issues in advance and help mitigate their impact further down the supply chain. Blockchain, when combined with technologies like the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), can create secure documentation of storage temperatures along the journey. This could provide supply chain managers with critical visibility of temperature diversions in a complex moving freight in real time and we’re already seeing similar application of the technology in the food supply chain today.
Reaping the full benefits of blockchain in life sciences requires collective buy-in and participation from all ecosystem partners, while ensuring interoperability between new technologies and existing systems. Blockchain adoption can create a wealth of new opportunities for the sector, while also addressing its key challenges. Life sciences companies that are bold enough to innovate and embrace the growth potential that blockchain has to offer will have a substantial competitive advantage, and ultimately provide better patient outcomes.
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