How trust technologies can support a successful vaccination campaign


Philippe Gillet is Chief Scientific Officer of the Swiss company SICPA. His focus is on innovation in the Economy of Trust. Trained as a geologist, Philippe Gillet is Chief Scientific Officer of the Swiss company SICPA. His focus is on innovation in the Economy of Trust. Trained as a geologist, former university director in France and head of cabinet of the French Minister for research and higher education, Gillet was also vice-president of Lausanne's EPFL.

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 $300 per 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 issued a warning. In fact, the trend was there before the pandemic. According to the Pharmaceutical Security Institute, theft and counterfeiting of pharmaceuticals have increased by 70 per cent in the last five years.

This 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 a contaminated product will infiltrate official supply chains, at least in industrialised countries, the mere possibility could have negative impact on vaccination campaigns. allow the trust of the population to be undermined. It is not only about the rise of the skeptics. 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, blockchains, chemical testing or serialisation - the unique identifiers for each vial of vaccine - provide us with the means to have a fully secured and easily verifiable supply chain.

Around the world, numerous start-ups are developing “track and trace” technologies for the pharmaceutical industry. Holograms are provided by Ireland's Optrace, contactless chips by the Pakistani Pharma TRAX, edible labels (one for each pill!) by America's TruTag, turnkey control and tracking solutions are designed by Italy's Antares Vision... There have never been more ways to control supply chains with an unprecedented level of security and transparency.

The American case. A real film is unfolding in the United States. Vaccines leave the Pfizer factory under federal escort. It even seems that convoys are empty acting as decoys. Each shipment of vaccines is equipped with bluetooth captors so that its position and temperature can be constantly verified. Fluorescent 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 the introduction of accounting, guarantees of reimbursement, and penalties. Sophisticated security inks protect banknotes from counterfeiting, and each use of a credit card triggers a mini-investigation using different algorithms to detect possible fraud patterns. Another example of trust technology is the GPS tracking of Uber drivers, which allows us to get into a car with a complete stranger. Without these technologies, our transactions would be far less secure.

When a health-related transaction takes place, trust is even more important. It is even vital, literally. We are inclined to accept qualitative compromises on a television set, much less on a motor vehicle, and even less on ur medicines. This is why Europe and the United States have insisted on deploying "track and trace" technologies for health products.

What is track and trace? This concept aims at deploying technologies, processes and regulations so that each consignment of medicines can be identified throughout its supply chain. It is based on a combination of physical markings and digital data associated with the product. The data must be linked to each consignment, or even to each vial or pill. Fraudulent and counterfeit products have data, which is disconnected from the original product - just as fake news is information disconnected from verifiable reality.

The industry has the same narrative as governments on this issue. Before the pandemic, the European Medicines Verification Organisation (EMVO) raised the stakes with an ambitious track and trace deployment plan at the European level. It represented close cooperation between the pharma industry, hospitals and pharmacies in the 28 EU countries – a massive logistical undertaking.

Transparency and monitoring efforts focus first on product manufacturing and then on the supply chain - as explained. But the chain does not stop once the vaccine has been injected.

Data should not only concern manufacturing, transport and administration, but also what comes afterwards. At SICPA and other companies, we are working to develop  digital vaccination certificates. These documents securely link the supplier, the vaccine number, the health authority that performs the administration and, finally, the person vaccinated or tested for his or her immune response. Our system, for example, is based on a combination of blockchain and QR-codes that allow certificates to be issued in paper or digital form.

The stakes of certification. These certificates could be a major asset 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 allow us to measure the effectiveness of vaccines over the long term and in different environments.

If it meets high standards 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 optimise public health strategies. If recall is necessary, we will be contacted; we can also show a verifiable and tangible proof of vaccination.

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