Blockchain: Pharma Keeps An Eye On The Ball

On April 24, 2017, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) came out with an interesting headline, “Dubai Aims to Be a City Built on Blockchain.” Some may have taken note of it seriously. However, a vast majority of its readers possibly equated the article with something, which is far from reality – like a distant dream.

However, looking at the rapid transformational phase of digital technology, nothing apparently is a dream – not even ‘a distant one.’ The following recent example, in a similar but not exactly the same context, would vindicate this point.

On January 09, 2018, Reuters reported with a headline, “JPMorgan’s Dimon regrets calling bitcoin a fraud.” Interestingly, at a conference held in September 2017, the same Dimon – the Chief Executive of JPMorgan, had commented: “The currency isn’t going to work. You can’t have a business where people can invent a currency out of thin air and think that people who are buying it are really smart.”

I cited the example of ‘Bitcoin’ while deliberating on ‘Blockchain’, primarily because ‘Bitcoin’ – an unregulated virtual or cryptocurrency was built on ‘Blockchain’ technology. This technology reportedly facilitates absolutely transparent, smooth, safe and corruption-free transaction of ‘Bitcoin’, without any third-party intervention at any stage.

Currently, moving beyond Bitcoin, many industries – including pharma, have started finding various uses of Blockchain in their respective businesses. Domain experts envisage, this technology has the potential to offer game changing values – revolutionizing various business processes.

In this article, I shall focus on how the healthcare industry, in general, and more specifically some global pharma players are contemplating to leverage the path breaking ‘Blockchain’ technology to add unprecedented value in the business. The technology being rather a complex one, I shall put it across in a way that an ordinary man like me can easily absorb. Which is why, I start with the first basic question that comes to the fore: ‘What exactly is ‘Blockchain’?

‘Blockchain’:

‘Blockchain’ is a technology that was reportedly conceptualized by an anonymous individual or a group known as Satoshi Nakamoto, in 2008. It was implemented in 2009, as a core component of ‘Bitcoin’ transactions – in an altogether different form of Internet. The technology provides in its network access to transparent digital information that no user can corrupt or probably even hack, leave aside taking copies. The December 13, 2017 article, featured in the Computerworld on this ‘Most disruptive tech in decades’, describes Blockchain as:

  • “Blockchain is a public electronic ledger – similar to a relational database – that can be openly shared among disparate users. It creates an unchangeable record of their transactions, each one time-stamped and linked to the previous one. Each digital record or transaction in the thread is called a block (hence the name), and it allows either an open or controlled set of users to participate in the electronic ledger. Each block is linked to a specific participant.”
  • “Blockchain can only be updated by consensus between participants in the system, and when new data is entered, it can never be erased. The Blockchain contains a true and verifiable record of each and every transaction ever made in the system.”
  • “As a peer-to-peer network, combined with a distributed time-stamping server, Blockchain databases can be managed autonomously to exchange information between disparate parties. There’s no need for an administrator. In effect, the Blockchain users are the administrators.”

Blockchain has, therefore, been meticulously designed to reveal any interference with the contents, ensuring a very high level of data security and access for all its users. Thus, many domain experts justifiably believe, what ‘open-source’ software did almost two and half decades ago, ‘Blockchain’ technology is possibly on a similar threshold of changing much of the ball game in Information Technology (IT), globally.

Big corporate houses of several industries, such as Fintech, Healthcare and Shipping envisage that ‘Blockchain’ technology has a great potential, as they start making limited use of it. It is still in its infancy for scalable use in most industries, probably other than ‘Bitcoin’ transactions.

Use of ‘Blockchain’ in pharma and healthcare:

Let me now explore the potential of ‘Blockchain’ in healthcare and pharma. A paper titled, “Healthcare rallies for Blockchains: Keeping patients at the center” by IBM Institute for Business Value, provides some important insight on its application in healthcare sector. This study is based on a survey of 200 healthcare executives in 16 countries, conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit. The key highlights are as follows:

  • 16 percent of pharma and healthcare respondents expected to have a commercial Blockchain solution at scale in 2017, as compared to 15 percent of the Banks and 14 percent of Financial enterprises. Thus, it appears, the adoption of Blockchain by healthcare entities are taking place at a faster pace than the other two.
  • 6 in 10 anticipate Blockchains will help them access new markets, and new and trusted information they can keep secure.
  • 7 in 10 of them expect the greatest Blockchain benefits to be in clinical trial records, regulatory compliance and medical/ health records.

Accordingly, the authors posed a few questions: How valuable would it be to have the full history of an individual’s health? What if every vital sign that has been recorded, of all the medicines taken, information associated with every doctor’s visit, illness, operation and more, could be efficiently and accurately captured – and securely stored?

If and when all this is put to scalable use, the designated users will get access to the historic and real-time patient data of various types, of high credibility. In turn, it is expected to significantly reduce many other costs, including the cost towards data reconciliation. Consequently, the quality and coordination of care would rise manifold, with lesser risk, if at all. I shall give below just a couple of examples to drive home the point:

I. Adds credibility and value to Clinical Trials:

The issue of not reporting around half of all clinical trial data, conducted by pharma players while obtaining marketing approval for innovative products, has become a topic of raging debates, across the world. The reason for the same is apparently the intent for the deliberate creation of an information-gap, by cherry picking more favorable trial data. This could eventually lead to compromising patient safety, seriously.

Allegations continue for not just mostly favorable trial data being presented to drug regulators and policymakers to obtain marketing and other approvals, but also for product promotion to doctors. This prompts many believing, “if the clinical trials are supported by Blockchain solution, all results, protocols, and other related information would be time-stamped and immutable, resulting in less data snooping and errors.” Consequently, it would help enhance the dwindling public trust on pharma, especially in this area.

II. Adds unprecedented security and transparency in SCM:

Another example of its effective use is in making a tamper-evident pharma Supply Chain Management (SCM), with unprecedented built-in security features to prevent drug counterfeiting and circulation of substandard drugs. Moreover, ‘Blockchain’ would ensure supply chain tracking even at the individual Stock Keeping Unit (SKU) level by establishing proof of ownership for specific sources of any product. This is especially important in the backdrop of the WHO report, highlighting that 30 percent of such drugs are sold primarily in developing countries.

Global pharma keeping an eye on the ball:

An article titled, ‘Big Pharma Seeks DLT Solution for Drug Costs’, published on January 09, 2018 by the CoinDesk – a digital media and information services company, discussed on this fascinating subject.

It reported, at least, three global pharma heavyweights – Pfizer, Amgen and Sanofi, are pondering, whether ‘Blockchain could be used to actually save lives?’ To achieve this goal with combined efforts, they are now exploring a Blockchain framework to streamline the process of developing and testing new drugs. These early initiators believe, as areas such as this, are of industry-wide importance, there is a need to create a growing momentum for collaboration on foundational issues. And, Blockchain framework that can address the current issues in drug development and clinical trials, will fetch a win-win outcome, both for the innovators and patients, besides other stakeholders.

To reduce the time and cost of bringing new drugs from research labs to patients, improved data management and movement is critical. Blockchain technology could hasten this process, by automating communication between pharma companies, researchers and patients. At the same time, it will ensure a very high level of data integrity, which is so important for health and safety interest of patients.

This area has assumed greater relevance in the recent years, when pharma innovators are facing different challenges to bring new, more personalized drugs to market – faster and at affordable prices, the paper highlights.

Areas of initial use by Indian pharma:

In my article “SCM: Embracing Technology For Patients’ Safety”, published in this Blog on December 18, 2017, I discussed a similar point, not in context of ‘Blockchain’, though. I wrote that by a notification dated January 05, 2016, the Directorate General of Foreign Trade (DGFT) has made encoding and printing of unique numbers and bar codes as per GSI Global Standard mandatory. This would cover tertiary, secondary and primary packaging for all pharmaceuticals manufactured in India and exported out of the country to facilitate tracking and tracing.

Although, the ‘Track and Trace’ system in India for drugs is currently applicable only to pharma exports, will ultimately cover drugs in the domestic market, as well. This is evident from a draft proposal of the Government to the stakeholders in June 2015, in this regard.

Blockchain-based public electronic ledgers that can be openly shared among disparate users, creating an unchangeable record of their transactions, with each one time-stamped and linked to the previous one, would be of immense importance for all concerned towards the reliability of medicines in India.

Similarly, as Indian players venture into more complex clinical trials, such as with biosimilars, Blockchain could catapult the narrative on reliability of Indian clinical data to a much higher level of trust.

Blockchain has come to stay:

As I said in the beginning, ‘Blockchain’ technology has started coming to the fore of many discussions and debates, mainly for its critical role in transparent transaction and distribution process of the cryptocurrency – Bitcoin.

December 16, 2017 issue of the Gulf News reported that UAE’s central bank is working on a joint cryptocurrency, based on Blockchain, with its counterpart in Saudi Arabia. Just prior to that, in August 31, 2017 issue of the Financial Times also reported: “Six of the world’s biggest banks have joined a project to create a new form of digital cash that they hope to launch next year for clearing and settling financial transactions over Blockchain, the technology underpinning bitcoin.”

And just this month, we got to know about the combined efforts of Pfizer, Amgen and Sanofi, to use a Blockchain framework for streamlining the process of developing and testing new drugs.

Besides many other industries, even several Governments are envisaging to unleash the transformative potential of Blockchain in various Governance processes. It may include the confidential data procured and used by Governments to confirm the identity or identification of individuals for different purpose, or even to ensure that the country’s election process is transparent and beyond corruption.

An expression of interest on the use of Blockchain by some State Governments in India, gets reflected in what the Chief Minister (CM) of Maharashtra said while inaugurating the Maharashtra Technology Summit (MTECH), jointly organized by FICCI and Govt. of Maharashtra in Mumbai on January 17, 2018.

The CM clearly indicated, as Blockchain can transform the e-governance, the State Governments must start interacting with technology providers to make Public delivery of goods and services transparent. This will reduce the trust deficit between businesses, and citizens with government departments. He admitted, in the space of technology, ‘Blockchain is one level up and it’s not just Internet of Thing, but it is Internet of trust, Internet of values, that can change the entire space of governance’.

Conclusion:

Blockchain may be just a technological component, but, nonetheless, a game changing one. Thus, the good news is, several pharma players are also taking great interest to step into this never ever experienced – and a new kind of digital paradigm.

It is heartening to note that a number of global pharma head honchos, such as of Novartis, Takeda, and several others, are creating a new global position of chief digital officer. GSK, reportedly, is the latest one to initiate similar step.

Indian pharma players, I reckon, can also reap a rich harvest, both tangible and intangible, by putting ‘Blockchain’ technology in place. It may start with building a transparent, incorruptible ‘Track and Trace’ system for medicines, in addition to achieving high degree of international reliability in its clinical trials, especially on biologic drugs.

The benefits built into the Blockchain technology for pharma, apparently, are far too many than perceived constraints to leverage it effectively. Encouragingly, global pharma seems to be keeping an eye on the ball – but what about Indian pharma?

By: Tapan J. Ray  

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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