China vaccine scandal: The moral imperative of blockchain data
When the stakes are this high, there's a moral imperative for putting raw data on the blockchain.
China's ongoing vaccination scandal centres around the news that Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology may have knowingly violated standards when manufacturing vaccines, forged data on inspections, falsified expiry dates and knowingly sold defective vaccinations and potentially deadly vaccines for children, including rabies vaccines, as well as at least a quarter of a million DPT (diphtheria, whooping cough and tetanus) vaccines to provincial governments as part of China's mandatory vaccine program.
China's ongoing vaccine scandals have so far been akin to a wave that refuses to break, with insiders describing the broken state of the system as an open secret, where data falsification and destruction is the norm.
The culture of the industry being described is one where China's pharmaceutical giants and government officials scratch each other's backs while public health centres remain underfunded. This forces them to supplement their funding by pushing non-mandatory vaccines harder, which further lines the pockets of the pharmaceutical companies. The bodies responsible for inspecting vaccine batches remain similarly underfunded and locked into a system where defects are typically spotted retrospectively.
Data blackouts help keep up the illusion, and in this environment, health centres that start reporting real numbers are perceived as the problem.
"Basically, we did not do anything to prevent malaria and many medicines are stored in our station too long and they pass their expiry date," one health centre staff member said to the South China Morning Post (SCMP). "We dare not openly report malaria cases because once the number is known by others, we will surely be punished."
Occasionally, someone or their fall guy will get a slap on the wrist, and occasionally, a fine is levied on a pharmaceutical company and quickly written off as the cost of doing business.
The result is a system where millions of people got defective vaccines without anyone knowing who, disease numbers are falsified for a positive spin and any information that could help solve the problem is being deliberately suppressed.
The wave breaks
Changsheng Biotechnology is at the heart of the latest vaccine scandal wave.
Once a state entity, it was privatised in 2003 and later used to replace foreign drug makers in China's public health and vaccination programs. Its billionaire owners can be found on the Forbes China rich list, and its success might be partly down to the connections it has forged with officials.
Months ago, a batch of about 250,000 DPT vaccines from Changsheng Biotechnology was found to be defective, and after an investigation, the company was fined the equivalent of about US$500,000 – a fraction of the approximately US$7 million equivalent it pocketed in subsidies the year before.
The announcement came five days after reports were published that the company had forged rabies vaccine data, prompting many to call for much more serious penalties.
The rabies vaccines are especially problematic and inspired a lot more outrage because the disease has about a 98% mortality rate, and the vaccinations are often given after initial exposure. Anyone who was given a defective rabies vaccine after being infected would think they were safe before almost certainly suffering a horrible death in the coming weeks.
The double-up also encouraged many to start digging deeper into the open secret of defective vaccines and data destruction.
The data vanishing act
Those who recently started digging into the issue noted that the data is hard to find and assemble, but there's enough to paint a picture of a serious problem that's been going on for a long time now. The problem has been propped up by the ease of falsifying data, the negligible penalties for being caught and the knowledge that transgressions will disappear or be forgotten soon enough.
One of the journalists who helped assemble that data, going by the pen name of "Beast" (兽爷 shouye), wrote the information into a piece headlined King of Vaccines. The article focused specifically on the history of Changchun Changsheng Biotechnology and how it allegedly built its empire by knowingly selling defective products, directly killing an unknown number of people in the process, right up to the recent DPT and rabies forgery scandals.
The piece was published on the tightly-moderated Chinese social media site Weibo, where it started going viral. It disappeared after just a few hours, but kept being passed on by others hoping to keep it in circulation. But those copies ended up disappearing even faster, and even with the concerted effort of users, it proved impossible to keep alive.
So someone published it on the Ethereum blockchain. Along with a transaction of 0.001 Ether (about 40 cents), the transaction input data includes the entirety of King of Vaccines, now permanently affixed in digital history and impossible to remove.
The permanence of such a damning report, coupled with widespread dissatisfaction around the present state of affairs, might have spurred the current sweeping series of pharmaceutical company spot checks and the arrest requests for 18 people at Changsheng Biotechnology, including the chairwoman and several senior executives.
It's not yet possible to say whether this could actually bring lasting change to China's defective vaccination problem, but in true blockchain fashion, it might highlight how a lack of data as well as incentive misalignments can create lasting problems, and how abrupt technological shifts can offer solutions.
Internet meets blockchain
According to the SCMP, in 2010, the state-run China Economic Times newspaper reported that hundreds of children in Shanxi province had died or suffered from severe side effects as a result of damaged vaccines since 2007. Shanxi officials denied that there were problems, and the newspaper's editor was sacked after the report was published.
The number of Internet users in China has grown a lot since then.
China's vaccine troubles are spanning a period of momentous technological change, not just with Ethereum and Internet 4.0, but with massive Internet adoption along with the digitisation of more data and the creation of tools for finding and analysing that data.
Getting a full picture, even with so much data being deliberately lost, means looking at a combination of vaccine batch test results, previous penalties and allegations, disease statistics and more from as wide a range of sources as possible. That there's such a clear history of troubles, even with so much crucial information disappearing into an authoritarian black hole, might hint at the sheer extent of the issue.
The current vaccine scandal isn't just the result of new allegations, but a protest against an old problem that's not only going unresolved, but is being aggressively ignored for the sake of short-term profit and political expedience as well as being dismissed as an isolated incident whenever it reoccurs.
Actually spurring informed change is dependent on being able to access a cumulative mountain of data and seeing the whole picture, so the data itself might be best kept safe on the blockchain – every arrest report, vaccine report and outbreak – to keep accumulating and building a case over the years.
This idea is as old as the blockchain itself and, to a certain extent, is what the entire concept of a censorship-proof immutability machine is for. After all, the hash of the bitcoin genesis block included a newspaper headline.
But when vaccine and disease information is being deliberately fudged and accurate information is being deliberately destroyed, the stakes are a whole lot higher. Ideally, you'd be able to trust authorities to handle this kind of data without breaking it. But when you clearly can't, there's a long-term moral imperative for ensuring that it's kept safely out of their reach and on the top shelf of the blockchain.
Disclosure: At the time of writing, the author holds ETH, IOTA, ICX, VET, XLM, BTC and ADA.