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Govt’s Co-WIN app to track both COVID-19 vaccine and its recipients

In Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film Contagion, people wore bar-coded wristbands to show they had been inoculated against a deadly virus that killed millions of people worldwide.

Today, as countries vaccinate their citizens against the coronavirus, a similar scenario is becoming a reality. Technologies such as blockchain, Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI) are being used to deliver vaccines against Covid-19, which has caused over 2 million deaths globally.

The Indian government is betting on the Co-WIN (Covid-19 Vaccine Intelligence Network) digital platform, a repurposed version of eVIN (Electronic Vaccine Intelligence Network). The ministry of health and family welfare guidelines state: “The Co-WIN system on a real-time basis will track not only the beneficiaries but also the vaccines, at national, state and district levels.”

At the heart of Co-WIN are the IT platforms being used in the Universal Immunisation Programme and eVIN. It is intended to be a comprehensive cloud-based IT solution for planning, implementing, monitoring and evaluating India’s Covid-19 vaccination process.

The challenge is to work with existing IT systems, integrate them and increase backend capacity to be able to cater to 1.3 billion Indians.

“For an app like Co-WIN, a very powerful database architecture is required, and a highly specialised database architect,” says Faisal Farooqui, CEO and co-founder of the consumer review platform mouthshut.com. That means a team of app developers and usability experts to build the app, a privacy professional who understands the implications of existing privacy laws, and a programme manager to oversee it all.

“Given the resources of the government, such a system can be put up in 45 days,” says Farooqui.

Given Co-WIN’s eventual scale, a good cloud server will be key. “The cloud server needs to be built on good infrastructure so that it can support scaling up fast,” says Biswatma Nayak, co-founder and head of engineering at Chingari, a short video app which acquired 20-25 million users within 72 hours after TikTok was banned in India.

Experts say technologies such as IoT, AI, machine learning and blockchain play a key role in tracking these vaccines and detecting any changes.

For instance, the different Covid-19 vaccines provided under the Co-WIN platform would need to be monitored at each stage, from shipment to storage, before people are actually injected.

Moreover, temperature conditions need to be tracked at every point, because different vaccines have to be stored at varying temperatures.

“Technology can play a major role in combating the pandemic on various fronts,” says Soumya Choudhury, chief executive of supply chain and logistics firm Visilogix. “This is especially true for an effective Covid-19 vaccine transport and supply chain, for which blockchain technology is a solution.”

chartBlockchain as a secure and tamper-proof database, along with IoT sensor monitoring on the blockchain, could provide end-to-end vaccine tracking, despite some implementation complexities, Choudhury explains.

Eventually, the plan is to allow registration for the vaccine through multiple channels, including the Aarogya Setu app, mobile phones, helplines or the web, according to former Telecom Regulatory Authority of India chairman RS Sharma, who heads the empowered committee on technology for the Covid vaccine.

Sharma had told Business Standard earlier that different government departments and the government’s technology infrastructure arm, the National Informatics Centre, are now taking ownership of the Co-WIN app.

Prem Sharma, CEO and founder of DaytoDay Health, an acute care service provider for patients, reckons that “while the government’s efforts are in the right direction, the Co-WIN ecosystem needs to incorporate a stronger AI and machine learning ecosystem for the platform to work efficiently.” To build scale, he says, the government should look at third-party service providers to boost efficacy and create a dynamic product.

Tracking shots from the first day to the next dose on the 21st or 28th day will be critical for data management and analytics. Tracking and tracing are also important to ensure quality and safety, and to eliminate black marketing, counterfeiting and cyberattacks. Indeed, hacking efforts against healthcare and medical organisations have increased during the pandemic (see box).

Salman Waris, managing partner at the technology law firm TechLegis Advocates and Solicitors, says an added challenge to vaccinating India’s large population is uploading data on the Co-WIN software to observe the recipients. Hence, it is critical that no breach of existing data takes place. “The other challenge is network connectivity and making sure there are no outages,” he adds.

India is one of the few countries that has chosen a digital platform to track vaccinations. Given its lack of last-mile data networks, though, the wisdom of making vaccination registration a fully electronic process has been questioned.

“The work can be accomplished without an app, considering that India doesn’t have internet connectivity, literacy or digital literacy in large parts of the country,” says Farooqui of mouthshut.com. “Instead of pre-registration, the government should have vaccinated people on a walk-in basis, and had some mechanism to prevent fudging.” -Business Standard