Blockchain technology is, in principle, an applicable technique to strengthen the accessibility, traceability and controllability in the international sharing of samples and data for infectious disease control, research & development (R&D). Recent advances in blockchain technology can help overcome complex administrative and legal barriers for the benefit of Open Science and global collaboration, if implemented by a ‘coalition of the willing’.

This is a brief summary of the research outcome published 15 May in Science conducted by the Athena Institute of Vrije University Amsterdam and RIVM.

Blockchain to support existing systems

In this article, the researchers explain how recent developments in blockchain technology may help to overcome current barriers. However, blockchain is certainly not the holy grail. Interesting new concepts, however, have emerged in this field recently that are worthy of attention to a broader audience. There appear to be many misunderstandings about what blockchain can and cannot mean.

Barriers to efficient collaboration

As a desktop experiment, the article outlines the contours of a possible blockchain-based system for efficient exchanges between researchers globally: an ORBI ("outbreak R&D blockchain infrastructure"). It can provide the chain of users of research centres, 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.

ORBI in its infancy

The researchers emphasise that designing and implementing a successful ORBI-like system is certainly not easy in practice. It concerns new technological concepts. Nevertheless, it is expected that, in the hands of a ‘coalition of the willing’, blockchain can promote the principles of Open Science and the fast, broad and secure sharing of data in an increasingly complex environment.