A still-evolving vaccine scandal in China prompted a range of social media discussions in the past week around how blockchain could have prevented such a situation – or how it might be used to stop it in the future.
To recap, ChangChun Changsheng Bio-technology, a pharmaceutical firm based in Jilin, is accused of having sold about 252,600 units of questionable DPT vaccine, not long after this Shenzhen-listed public firm was found forging data on about 113,000 substandard rabies vaccines, according to a report from the South China Morning Post.
Notably, this is not the first vaccine-related scandal occurred in China in the past year. Several pharmaceutical companies have been involved in producing and selling a great number of DPT vaccines, and a majority of them remain unpunished to this day.
There's little doubt that the latest exposure of wrongdoing has caused yet another outcry among the public and the scandal-plagued pharmaceutical industry. At its heart, the snowballing problems have raised a core question: how can Chinese families protect their kids and themselves?
The idea that blockchain could allow for the more efficient dispersal of data about vaccines spread soon after the rabies vaccine scandal broke.
A computer programmer under the username @wstart arguably got the ball rolling on V2EX, a Reddit-like online community. According to his post, after spending about 14 hours on data mining and coding, he was able to locate problematic vaccines in 30 provinces.
During the process, he explained, it became apparent how surprisingly difficult it was to gather all the information he needed, with some still remaining unavailable or unsearchable.
And that's when the crypto community in China started to come out and highlight blockchain as a possible solution.
As CoinDesk reported Monday, Xiaolai Li, one of the best-known of the country's crypto investors, was among the first to have sparked the discussion about blockchain adoption in the pharmaceutical industry.
In his WeChat article, the crypto investor argued that the technology could help offer visibility as medicines move through the supply chain – that is, as they transported from the facility at which they are made to the hospitals that distributed them.
According to anonymous commentary which appeared on Jianshu, a blog site in China, the author said that blockchain has largely been "demonized" by many people because of the many token sale scandals (China banned ICOs in 2017).
But people should also remind themselves that blockchain itself is only a technology, the anonymous poster argued.
And the idea of Chinese firms using blockchain for supply-chain purposes isn't exactly new. Companies like JD.com and Walmart are already applying the tech to tracing food shipments, for example.
Zhipeng Cheng, a financial commentator at China Finance Online, a China-based financial information company, offered a more detailed plan on how blockchain can be used in the pharmaceutical industry in an op-ed from earlier this week.
By using blockchain technology, he said in his article, the National Institutes for Food and Drug Control (NIFDC) can form a public chain for its inspection technology and share its technology for vaccines tracking. Institutes and organizations can apply and participate in the public chain, he argued.
Though just a technology, Cheng said that he believes the country should "embrace blockchain and put it into practice."
From ideas to practice?
Local news stories suggest that movement toward this is already taking place.
Beijing News, a Beijing government-backed news outlet, reported on July 24 that several blockchain firms in China are already responding to the growing chatter about making vaccines safer and have responded by putting keywords like "vaccines" and "embed vaccine on chain" in their social media accounts.
Yet not everyone seems so enthusiastic about the concept.
The question "can a mathematical algorithm really solve a trust crisis?" was posted by a commentator on DoNews, a technology news website in China, earlier this week.
As they argued:
"Blockchain technology cannot put an end to the production of the problematic vaccines, and it would even be hard to change the status quo - because the operation of this industry is deeply centralized. It is simply an abysmal 'black box.' Nobody can really be sure about the trace of the internal operation until any serious problems leak again. Once that happens, its "system" would give you some sort of 'data' which would make you feel stupid."
The author then concluded that blockchain is only a technology, which will not solve the much more complicated social issues that deeply rooted in Chinese society.
Another article from July 23 appeared on Zhihu, the Chinese version of Quora, also doubted the feasibility of the blockchain adoption from a more technological side.
People cannot guarantee "the authenticity of the original information," the author argued. "For example, the information of the vaccine production can be false even before it gets on the chain."
Indeed, at least one startup has attracted the interest from regulators regarding a claim that it is putting together a blockchain platform for this purpose, as CoinDesk previously reported.
Censorship at work
The examples show that there is an earnest discussion taking place within China's social media ecosystem on this dilemma.
But the ever-present issue of state censorship makes it difficult to get a firm grasp on how detailed the conversations have been beyond news outlets and blog posts and the comments that accompany them.
On Weibo, for example, no results are shown when searching the keywords "blockchain" and "vaccine" – an indication that those posts are being masked. Yet notably, it may be blockchain itself that helps enable conversations the one taking place around the vaccine issue.
The original article - dubbed "the King of Vaccine," which unveiled the newest scandal – is currently blocked on Chinese social media. Yet someone has permanently recorded it on the ethereum blockchain, as shown on Etherescan.
As this post on BTC123.com, a China-based crypto online community, explained:
"At 2.49. 54 (s) a.m. July 22, 2018, an article named 'the King of Vaccine' has been permanently recorded on Etherescan at 6007493. It might just be a small step in the blockchain world. Someday, it might become a huge step in the human history."