IBM harnessing blockchain to deliver verifiable Covid-19 vaccine and health passes

Director of Blockchain and IoT Platforms at IBM Research in Haifa believes blockchain is the ideal technology to tackle the challenges of coronavirus

Allon Sinai 22:4123.01.21

The potential of blockchain technology has long been touted. The lack of an imperative use-case, however, has constantly served its critics who remain skeptical about its actual benefits compared to other solutions.


Covid-19 may prove to be the seismic event required to change that, with IBM probably the biggest player looking to harness blockchain to solve some of the pandemic’s most pressing issues. The Digital Health Pass, part of IBM Watson Works, is designed to provide organizations with a smart way to bring people back to the workplace, schools, stadiums, or planes. Built on IBM Blockchain technology, the solution helps organizations verify health credentials for employees, customers, and visitors entering their site based on criteria specified by the organization. With privacy being a crucial part of the solution, the digital wallet held by the users allows them to maintain control of their personal health information and share it in a way that is secured, verifiable, and trusted, and powered by blockchain.


"When Covid-19 began we identified several needs. One of the needs that we started to address and turned into a product came as a response to the necessity to track people’s medical state. The need for people to prove that they have been vaccinated or have received a negative result for a Covid-19 test was connected to something we had been working on for many years, which was creating a digital identity," Director of Blockchain and IoT Platforms at IBM Research, Gabi Zodik, who is based out of the Haifa Research Lab, told CTech. "At the moment our identity is made up of many pieces of information that are spread out through many computer systems. In Israel, your medical information is pretty organized due to the HMO system, but around the world, people receive treatment in many different clinics so even their medical identity isn't located in a single place. In addition, a person's identity isn't just their medical information, but also their financial situation or education history, and this is all dispersed between many networks."


Gabi Zodik, Director of Blockchain and IoT Platforms at IBM Research. Photo: IBM Research Gabi Zodik, Director of Blockchain and IoT Platforms at IBM Research. Photo: IBM Research


In addition to the Digital Health Pass, as vaccine availability scales, IBM is also offering the Vaccine Accountability Network that is designed to strengthen trust and accountability at each point of the vaccine supply chain.


"Usually when you need to prove something about your identity you need to do so manually, for example, providing a copy of a university certificate or in the case of Covid-19 presenting a document showing that you have tested negative," said Zodik. "For example, when you apply for a loan, the bank asks for payslips as proof that you are capable of returning the loan. All of these things are very easy to forge. Any kid can fake a PDF document that says someone has tested negative and people have actually been caught faking these documents. There is also the issue of privacy. When you are giving the bank your payslips you are revealing a lot more information than required. We wanted to solve all these issues with our blockchain-based system."


Zodik broke down why blockchain is the ideal technology for such a solution. "There is, of course, the question of why this system needs to use a blockchain and can't just be a secure centralized system. If all that was needed was a system controlled by the Ministry of Health and would apply only to Israel, then a centralized system is indeed a possibility. The thing is, that in most countries, including Israel, this isn't practical as there are many stakeholders involved. You have the labs, who might be private or belong to an HMO or a hospital, and you have those who need to verify the data and that could be an airline, or an entertainment or sports venue. And above all these, you have the health ministry," said Zodik. "So many organizations are involved and the data is decentralized and doesn't belong to any one organization. There is also not necessarily full trust between these organizations when it comes to sharing data.


"With the system that we have built every person who is tested receives a digital encrypted certificate that includes their personal information and result. A person can carry this certificate on their phone and present it to anyone who wants to check their medical situation, for example, before boarding a flight or entering a concert," added Zodik, who has been at IBM since 1994. “The beauty of this system is that the airline doesn't need to make any special inquiries and can use the public key of the lab to check that the certificate is indeed authentic and that the personal details match. At the moment, the agent at the airport can't really tell if your document is authentic or fake and even if it is real if indeed that lab is authorized by the Ministry of Health to conduct tests."


IBM announced last month that it was teaming up with multinational cloud company Salesforce, integrating the Digital Health Pass with the Salesforce platform.


Zodik believes IBM's solution will only become ideal once a global standard is agreed upon. "At the moment, even if you hold an authentic certificate signed by your HMO, the immigration officer checking it in Europe can't identify if the organization is really permitted to distribute such certificates," he said. "Should the system be digital and transparent, any country can join the network and access the results. In an ideal world, every country will have its own network, but the certificate will be standard so that if, for example, you arrive in Germany they will be able to access it and it will include the same fields they are accustomed to and they will be able to understand the results."


For many, blockchain still remains no more than a tech buzzword. But Zodik believes that it won't be long before it receives the respect it deserves by being adopted regardless of hype, with or without Covid-19.


"In a few years, we won't be talking about blockchain as some extraordinary or new technology. It will simply be part of our capabilities and allow us to create decentralized applications with the trust they can create between different organizations on a joint ledger. It will be part of the many technologies in use and there will no longer be any need to talk about it so much,” concluded Zodik.