As a University of South Florida College of Public Health student the last four years, I studied emerging infectious diseases and public health emergencies in large populations. Little did I know, I would be using this knowledge all too quickly as COVID-19 was on the way and would halt life as we know it around the globe. We are now 7 months in from the first diagnosis of infection of the COVID-19 virus in the United States which was confirmed on January 20, 2020. As COVID-19 rampantly spreads across the United States and around the globe, so does the sobering reality that epidemics will become more common with our increasingly connected age.
In our global society, outbreaks of infectious disease can move from a remote village to a major city on the other side of the world in under 36 hours.
As the world’s population swells, so will the number of outbreaks and the people impacted. The number of outbreaks, like the number of emerging infectious diseases, appears to be increasing with time in the human population both in total number and richness of causal diseases.
We are an increasingly mobile global population, traveling more for both work and pleasure than ever before. In 2018, there were 4.2 billion air transport passenger journeys – compared to 310 million in 1970. This mobility helped propel coronavirus’ instantaneous transfer from Wuhan, China to more than 60 countries in just two months and the rapid spread we are seeing within the United States. We are also living closer together, as the global population grows it puts pressure on living space. By 2050, 68% of the world’s population is expected to live in urban areas, making it all too easy for infectious disease to spread like wildfire and for entire communities to become infected.
Infectious diseases were named one of the top 10 risks in terms of impact for the next 10 years according to the Global Risks Report. Published in January, the report came with a stark warning: “As existing health risks resurge and new ones emerge, humanity’s past successes in overcoming health challenges are no guarantee of future results.”
These diseases will reshape economies. Economists estimate that, in the coming decades, flu pandemics will cause average annual losses of 0.7% of global GDP – or $570 billion. We have already seen the devastating impact COVID-19 has caused the United States economy, prompting many to make comparisons to The Great Depression in 1929.
Given an increasingly connected society, fighting future epidemics will no longer be the sole responsibility of public health and healthcare experts. Solutions will take cooperation from a range of leaders, both public and private, as well as the help of the general population. With my knowledge of infectious disease from a public health professional point of view, this is where I see blockchain technology as a solution for many of the gaps we are seeing in COVID-19 response and information as well as how this technology can help with future epidemics and pandemics.
Currently, most countries have an infectious disease reporting system in which hospitals and clinics diagnose and report patients to the higher authorities, which in turn report the cases to the final authority. For example, you get tested by your primary care physician, they then report to your counties health department, then they report to the states health department, then they report to the CDC. Whenever there are intermediary processes for the report to pass from the hospital or clinic to the final institution, the reporting time may increase, which can make it extremely difficult to respond promptly to a highly contagious infectious disease. We have seen these kinds of issues with COVID-19 reporting in the United States on a daily basis and this passive reporting method can result in the omission of reports. Furthermore, the use of a central server may inevitably result in greater damage if the system is exposed to a hacking attack during a crisis; thus, making it harder to detect altered data after hacking. If blockchain technology were to be used for infectious disease reporting systems, the data would be automatically reported to the final authority at the same instant that they are stored in the blockchain, without passing through any intermediary processing; this procedure would result in the improvement of the efficiency of data transfer regarding infectious disease outbreaks.
Blockchain could also prevent the spreading of false information regarding infectious disease. False information confuses people and can cause psychological anxiety, economic loss, and make many lose sight of the issue at hand. Storing news and information on a blockchain platform not only prevents its alteration, but also makes it traceable; thus, making it easier to prevent the development and spread of false information. In an age of social media and interconnectedness, the need for secure, accurate information for the masses is of utmost importance for helping to educate the general public.
With an increasing likelihood that we’ll see more epidemics of this scale in the future, I wholeheartedly believe that blockchain technology will be playing a large role in the world’s fight against infectious disease outbreaks.