How trust technologies can support a successful vaccination campaign

This article is a translation of the column first published by Heidi News here.

Philippe Gillet is Chief Scientific Officer of the Swiss company SICPA. His focus is on innovation in the Economy of Trust. A geologist by training, former university director in France and head of cabinet of the French Minister for research and higher education, he was also vice-president of the l’Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale of Lausanne.


The pandemic provides the conditions for the creation of a black market in vaccines. The gap between supply and demand will stimulate the parallel distribution channels with stolen products, or worse, counterfeits. On the darknet doses of vaccines for SAR-CoV2 are being sold for USD300/dose – in the best case they may be selling water, in the worse case products which are a danger to health. According to IBM groups of hackers have tried to penetrate crucial supply chains – no one understands their motives. And as early as the start of December, Europol send out warnings. In fact, the trend was there before the pandemic. According to the Pharmaceutical security Institute, theft and counterfeiting of pharmaceutical products has increased by 70% in the last five years.

The black market which we can expect to explode at any moment, is not only a risk to customers. It also risks breaking an already fragile trust. Even if it is unlikely that contaminated product infiltrate official supply chains, at least in industrialised countries, the mere possibility could have negative impact on vaccination campaigns. We cannot allow the trust of the population to be undermined.  It is not only about the rise of the sceptics. We need to be fully transparent vis-à-vis all of those who wish to be vaccinated, often motivated by a strong civic sense.

One part of the answer is technological. Recent progress in captors, the blockchain, chemical testing and serialization  – the unique identifiers for each phial of vaccine –  provide us with the means to have a supply chain which is fully secured and easily verifiable.

Across the world numerous startups are developed technologies for ‘track and trace’ for the pharma industry. Holograms are provided by the Irish Optrace, contactless chips by the Pakistani company Pharma TRAX, edible labels (one for each pill!) by America’s TruTag, turnkey solutions for monitoring and tracing are provided by Italy’s Antares Vision ….  There have never been more means to control supply chains securely and provide transparency.

The American case. In the USA it’s like a film unfolding. Vaccines leaving the Pfizer factory with a federal escort. It seems some convoys are empty acting as decoys. Each shipment of vaccine is equipped with Bluetooth captors so that its position and temperature can be constantly verified. Flourescent markings allow authenticity to be checked on delivery.

All these initiatives are based on what we call trust technologies. There are many more than you might think. Nearly every human transaction can be protected. Cash is no doubt the first and the oldest of these technologies.  Beside the purely practical aspects, cash establishes a trust relationship between two parties, allowing for the introduction of accounting, guaranteeing reimbursement, penalties. Ever more sophisticated security inks protect banknotes from counterfeiting; each use of a credit card sets of a mini-investigation using different algorithms to detect fraud. Another example of trust technology is the GPS tracking of Uber driver, which allow us without worry to get into a car with a complete stranger. Without these technologies, our transactions would be much less safe.

When a health-related transaction take place, trust is even more important.  In fact, it’s vital, literally. We are inclined to accept compromises when it’s a question of our TV, a bit less when it concerns our car, even less for our medicines. That’s why Europe and the US have insisted on deploying ‘track and trace’ technologies for health products.

What istrack and trace’? The approach aims to deploy technologies, processes and regulations so that each consignment of medicines can be identified along its supply chain. It is based on a combination of physical markings and digital data associated with the product.  The data needs to be directly linked to each consignment, or perhaps each phial or pill. Fraudulent and counterfeits have data which is disconnected with the original product – exactly like fake news is disconnected with verifiable reality.

Industry has the same narrative as government in this area. Before the pandemic the European Medicines Verification Organization (EMVO) was raising the stakes with am ambitious place to deploy track and trace at European level. It represented close cooperation between the pharma industry, hospitals and pharmacies in the 28 EU countries – a massive logistical undertaking.

The efforts to raise transparency and monitoring start at product manufacture, then follow the supply chain – as explained. But the chain does not stop once the vaccine has been injected.

Data should not only concern manufacture, transport and administration, but also the ‘after’. At SICPA and other companies we are working to develop digital vaccination certificates. The documents securely link the supplier, the unique number of the vaccine, the health authority which administers the product and, finally, the person vaccinated and tested for their immune response. As an example, our system is based on a combination of blockchain and QR codes which allow secured certificates to be delivered in either digital or paper form

The stakes of certification. These certificates could be a major plus in rising out of this global crisis. No phase III clinical test is as precise statistically as a campaign which involves millions of patients. Coordinated and automated monitoring would allow us to measure the effectiveness of vaccines in the long term and in different environments.

If it respects high standard of personal data protection, a digital vaccination pass could also discourage people turning to the black market. By being vaccinated in an official center, we are contributing to a collective effort to optimize public health strategies. If recall is necessary, we will be contacted; we can also show a verifiable and tangible proof of vaccination.

Never has trust been more important than in resolving the covid health, economic and social crisis.  With its expertise in the areas of medtech and processes (insurance, finance…..) combined with a high capacity for innovation, Switzerland could play an important role in deploying these trust technologies. But above all, these technologies are crucial so that our democracies can calmly and rationally confront the next pandemic – which we hope will arise later rather than sooner.

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