In a world in which we are increasingly mobile, outbreaks of known or new infectious diseases are a real and unavoidable threat. It is vital that we build improved systems to more quickly detect and respond to new outbreaks. Concepts for such a system are the outcome of research published in Science Magazine and conducted by the Athena Institute, the RIVM Center for Infectious Disease Control, and industry partner FutureLab.
"There seems to be a lack of mutual trust, lack of clarity about intellectual property and international treaties, and conflicting public, private, and academic interests."
In the article, the researchers explain that sharing research data and materials (such as genetic codes of the pathogen) plays an important role in responding to outbreaks. A rapid exchange between scientists, governments and companies worldwide is essential for the development of vaccines, diagnostics, medicines and effective public health action. The researchers explain how recent developments in blockchain technology may help to overcome current barriers. “There are barriers to sharing data and materials, and thereby efficient collaboration. These seem to stem from a lack of mutual trust, lack of clarity about intellectual property and international treaties, and conflicting public, private, and academic interests,” say Mark van der Waal and Carolina dos Santos Ribeiro, shared co-authors of the article.
As a desktop experiment, the article outlines the contours of a possible blockchain-based system, called an ORBI ("outbreak R&D blockchain infrastructure") for efficient exchanges between researchers globally. It can provide the chain of users of research centers, biobanks and databases with certainty about the origin and conditions that the original owner sets for use, without having to renegotiate with every new user. It may also give the original owner more insight and control over which successive partners use samples or data and offers the certainty that the conditions under which this happens are known to the user(s) and cannot be changed unilaterally.
"Now that votes are rising to start a COVID-19 ‘technology pool’, the publication of these concepts is just in time."
“This paper stresses the value of proactive, interdisciplinary research. Now that votes are rising to start a COVID-19 ‘technology pool’ to accelerate and broaden the sharing of relevant research data and materials worldwide, the publication of these concepts is just in time. We hope this work will help researchers and policymakers further develop initiatives to enhance data sharing,” add Linda van de Burgwal, senior author and Assistant Professor at the Athena Institute.
The researchers emphasize that blockchain technology is no holy grail, and designing and implementing a successful ORBI-like system will not easy in practice. For example, many of the technological concepts described are still in their infancy, and there are many different stakeholders worldwide who need to cooperate and different perspectives that need to be heard properly. But it would be a worthwhile effort, to further investigate how the technologies described can be used to promote the principles of Open Science and the rapid, broad and secure sharing of data in an increasingly complex environment.