At the time of writing, many countries are executing large-scale vaccination programs to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic. Naturally, the focus is on the pharma and life sciences sector. That shouldn’t distract the world from the long-term objective vis-à-vis this sector. Patients and the larger society need this sector to deliver long-term value. The pharma, healthcare and life sciences sectors have their work cut out, and they needs technology that helps. Can blockchain fit the bill? Read on, as we look at blockchain uses cases in the pharma and life sciences sector.
The challenges plaguing the global pharma and life sciences sector
A report from The Business Research Company estimates that the global pharmaceuticals market will grow to $1.732 trillion in 2023 from $1.217 trillion in 2019. The report estimates this market to reach $2.050 trillion in 2025 and $3.206 trillion in 2030.
These impressive numbers don’t tell the full tale though! The global pharma and life sciences sector faces numerous challenges. These are as follows:
Lopsided availability of medicines: The low-income countries don’t get the supply of medicines that they need. Nothing demonstrates this more starkly than the lopsided distribution of COVID-19 vaccines! As ourworldindara.org reports, only 0.8% of people in low-income countries have received even one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of 18th June 2021. That certainly leaves a lot to be desired!
Obsolete strategy: Big pharma companies have long followed the strategy of developing and promoting a few molecules. This strategy is now obsolete. The R&D productivity in this sector is diminishing.
The scourge of counterfeit medicines: Nearly 1 million people die every year due to counterfeit drugs. Developing countries face the brunt of this scourge heavily. 10%-30% of the medicines in these countries are counterfeit!
The growth of chronic diseases: More people are now affected by chronic diseases. This increases the pressure on a stretched healthcare delivery system including the pharma sector.
The opacity in the pharmaceutical supply chain: The pharmaceutical industry needs to demonstrate that the medicines are manufactured safely. It needs to track the supply chain of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), which is hard.
The challenges in managing clinical trial data: Pharmaceutical companies need to effectively manage clinical trial data to get the necessary regulatory approval. Clinical trial data is vast, and it’s hard to manage it securely.
Why blockchain can make an impact in the pharma and life sciences sector
Blockchain has specific characteristics that can help the pharma and life sciences sector. These characteristics are as follows:
Decentralization: The peer-to-peer (P2P) network of blockchain fosters decentralization. It also makes intermediaries irrelevant.
Transparency: The distributed ledger of blockchain is available with all nodes, i.e., computers on a blockchain network. This encourages transparency. Most of the key blockchain projects are open-source, which boosts transparency too.
Efficiency: The distributed ledger of blockchain makes it easier to share information. Blockchain smart contracts can automate contract administration. These factors boost efficiency.
Security: Features like digital signature and data encryption make transactions secure.
Immutability: Features like consensus algorithm and cryptographic hash function make it practically impossible to tamper with data on a blockchain network.
The pharma and life science sector sees the value that blockchain can offer. This sector witnesses growing investments in blockchain. A GlobeNewsWire report estimates the market of blockchain technology in this sector to grow from $212.7 million in 2020 to $25.619 billion in 2030.
Key blockchain use cases in the pharma and life sciences sector
Let’s review the following important blockchain use cases in the pharma and life sciences sector:
1. Managing demand-supply data for medicines
At the time of writing this, COVID-19 vaccination is a high-visibility topic. We use this topic to explain how blockchain can help to manage demand-supply data for medicines.
When we write this article, low-income countries have received very few vaccine doses. The world witnesses a scarcity as far as the COVID-19 vaccines are concerned. The supply just can’t match the demand.
Against this backdrop, meeting the entire requirement of vaccines can be very hard. Stakeholders need to prioritize and rationalize the demand. They should try to meet the high-priority demands first.
How to determine the priority of the demand? Many data elements come into the picture, e.g.:
• Total COVID-19 caseload in a country/province/city;
• Active COVID-19 caseload in a country/province/city;
• The % of the population at high risk, e.g., healthcare workers, sanitation workers, security forces, senior citizens, etc.;
• The extent of herd immunity developed in a country/province/city.
Collecting this data is a huge project. Multiple stakeholders, e.g., government officials, healthcare workers, hospitals, etc. need to provide this data at localized levels. Then comes the question of collating, reviewing, and publishing the data.
Developed countries might be able to manage this project, thanks to their digital infrastructure. Low-income countries might find it hard to produce and manage this data. The data might have errors. Political interest groups might manipulate the data due to vested interests.
Blockchain can make it easier to manage this data. Its secure, transparent, immutable, and distributed ledger increases the confidence in the data.
2. Combating the scourge of counterfeit medicines
The global pharmaceutical supply chain is incredibly complex. While pharma majors manufacture medicines, the ingredients come from different companies.
Especially important are APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients). A pharma major might manufacture medicine in one country, whereas, the manufacturers of APIs might operate in other countries.
Law enforcement mechanisms varying widely across countries. Do the API manufacturers operate transparently? Or, do pharma majors receive counterfeit APIs? Worse still, do the pharma majors include all the required APIs in a drug?
The rising death toll due to counterfeit medicines is eroding the trust in the system. Consumers, governments, and regulators want effective traceability of the pharmaceutical supply chain.
Blockchain can help with its transparent and distributed ledger. The MediLedger Network, a consortium blockchain platform is focusing exactly on this. Companies like Pfizer are participating in this network. The MediLedger Network has several solutions. One of them is a product verification system that helps to verify the authenticity of a drug.
3. Improving the inventory management processes in the pharma sector
The pharmaceutical sector has complex inventory management processes. In addition to managing demand and supply data, these processes involve tracking multiple parameters.
Many drugs are sensitive. Pharma majors and distributors need to maintain certain humidity and temperature ranges. Take the example of several vaccines. They require environments that are managed carefully. Mishandling of such medicines causes wastage, which must be avoided.
Think of the scale now! In large countries, stakeholders need to manage this in many locations for millions of doses of medicines. That’s hard.
Organizations involved in pharmaceutical inventory and supply chain management have already started using IoT (Internet of Things) to track crucial parameters like humidity, temperature, etc.
They need to effectively manage the massive data created in this process. Downstream organizations and regulators need reliable data. The immutable and transparent ledger of blockchain can help.
Chronicled, an American supply chain technology company focusing on IoT and blockchain is working on this already. The company has partnered with OCEASOFT, a French company producing atmospheric monitors for supply chain tracking. This partnership will focus on monitoring the temperature in the pharma supply chain.
4. Transforming clinical trial data management
Pharmaceutical companies go through a complex set of R&D processes. A key step in this is the clinical trial process. Pharma companies need to demonstrate the effectiveness of their drug to get approval from regulators. Regulators need hard proof of effectiveness, and clinical trial data needs to provide that.
The clinical trial process involves many stakeholders, e.g., patients, sponsors, healthcare service providers, and regulators. Clinical trial data includes sensitive health information of patients. Stakeholders must protect that. They also must share clinical trial data transparently enough to get approval from regulators.
Blockchain offers the solutions required to manage this complexity. Its transparency, data security, immutability, and distributed ledger can make clinical trial data management easier. Boehringer Ingelheim, a pharma major and IBM are already using blockchain to manage clinical trial data.
The global pharma and life sciences sector is large and complex. It faces several challenges, and industry leaders are investing in technology to deliver value. Blockchain can help. We have reviewed key blockchain use cases in this sector. Watch this space for further insights.
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