Blockchain has been long touted as a technology that can improve nearly every component of the pharmaceutical value chain, from increasing supply chain transparency to enhancing data collection in clinical trials. Nevertheless, despite the considerable improvements the technology could bring to the pharmaceutical sector, blockchain-related revolution hasn’t happened yet. While COVID-19 has accelerated digital transformation in pharmaceuticals, blockchain has witnessed a setback.

In GlobalData’s “The State of the Biopharmaceutical Industry” survey tracker, completed by healthcare industry professionals between December 2019 and January 2020 and again between December 2020 and January 2021, the respondents indicated that in 2020 their blockchain investments fell by 6% compared with the previous year. On the other hand, they believed that investments in blockchain should pick up over the next two years, with 23% of respondents expecting their organizations to invest in blockchain (Figure 1).

Rather than simply accelerating digital evolution, COVID-19 emerged as a digital reset, with companies shifting towards different technology investment priorities in 2020. The unexpectedness of COVID-19 reinforced a need for the pharmaceutical industry to embrace a reactive instead of proactive risk management and investment approach during the pandemic, with an enhanced focus on short-term strategies and tactics. The decrease in blockchain investment may be associated with pharma prioritizing “here and now” technologies during the pandemic, which would help mitigate any initial impact caused by COVID-19 and facilitate priorities such as disruption to clinical trials and the salesforce, and the shift to remote working.

According to a GlobalData poll conducted with pharmaceutical industry professionals during February 18 – April 19, 2021, 29% of 246 respondents believed that among pharmaceutical value chain components, supply chains could benefit the most from implementing blockchain. This was followed by the drug development process (e.g. clinical trials), identified by 17% (Figure 2). However, despite the pharmaceutical industry expressing support for blockchain’s implementation in supply chains and clinical trials, the industry is still several years away from accelerating investments.

Problems in the pharmaceutical supply chain are not new, nor uncommon. By disrupting nearly every part of supply chain in the healthcare industry, COVID-19 highlighted once again a strong need for improvement and change. COVID-19 uncovered inconsistencies in inventory management practices and long-established procurement processes when, at the height of COVID-19 crisis, hospitals were struggling to secure even the basic protective equipment supplies. Enabled by blockchain technology, the journey of medicines and medical equipment could become more efficient, secure, and streamlined. Creating and maintaining inventories of medical supplies, especially at a global scale, could help to tackle medical supply shortages, address quality control issues, and prevent counterfeit products from entering the supply chain.

Bringing a drug to market is risky, costly, and time-consuming. However, despite seriously impacting clinical research, COVID-19 is also proving to be a catalyst that may transform the drug development process, with technological innovations such as remote patient monitoring, and virtual clinical trials taking center stage in driving this change. Blockchain could bring an opportunity to enhance trial decentralization by enabling secure real-time data sharing, decision making, and document management while at the same time ensuring data integrity. Even though regulatory hurdles—the main factor preventing greater uptake of technologies in clinical trials and the shift towards decentralization—were relaxed because of COVID-19, it remains crucial to maintain regulatory relief post-pandemic in order to sustain already-made progress and accelerate drug future development.

Even though blockchain is not new, it is still in the early days of application to healthcare industry practices. While adoption of blockchain technologies in the pharmaceutical industry has been rather slow and mainly limited to pilot projects, there may be an upturn in the future. Although COVID-19 has not yet accelerated the adoption of technology, it provided an even stronger need to optimize pharmaceutical industry processes, which could be improved further with the help of blockchain technology.