U.S. Health Department Puts Blockchain to Work To Fight Coronavirus

Man with unemployment form in Florida
Credit: Marco Bello / Reuters -

By Landon Manning

In late July 2020, the U.S. Health Department confirmed that a blockchain program to track information related to COVID-19 is operational and in use, marking a significant new use case for distributed ledger technology.

This news first broke in an interview between Forbes and Jose Arrieta, the chief information officer of the Health and Human Services Department (HHS), in which Arrieta claimed that distributed ledger technology was being used to more effectively track data in novel coronavirus hospitalizations nationwide.

Arrieta went into some of the details about how the HHS Protect project, its data authentication platform, is leveraging blockchain technology. Compared to previous technologies used by the HHS, he said that with the new system “every day, every data element we receive is hashed with a time-stamped record of the parsing and curation and sharing of that data element.” He also claimed that the adoption of Protect will “allow for faster clinical trials, protect citizens and flatten the curve on this pandemic, so we can recover from this pandemic using blockchain technology.”

Arrieta claimed that this system is using an enterprise blockchain similar to those leveraged by Hyperledger and IBM, but he declined to give any exact technical specifics. Nevertheless, he claimed that this system will be a “fresh step forward, where thousands of users on the platform are accessing data sets,” and that the HHS would now be able to “share with the general public how the results were generated, because you have a record that is immutable.”

The development and application of HHS Protect has caused some controversy, though not particularly for its use of a blockchain network. With the development of this new data-sorting system, hospitalization data that was going to the Center for Disease Control is now being shifted exclusively to HHS Protect. Officials from both agencies defended the move, with CDC director Robert Redfield saying “No one is taking access or data away from CDC” and that “This has no effect on CDC's ability to use data,” per ABC News.

Arrieta defended the wide-sweeping applications of blockchain technology, claiming that “the ability to rapidly collect different information, so we can get an understanding of what's happening across the United States — federal, state, local and zip code level — is of key importance when you're dealing with a novel virus, disease like COVID-19.”

Amid federal- and state-level inconsistency with blockchain regulations in the past, the enthusiastic adoption of a system like this for such a critical task could be significant for the future of institutional blockchain adoption in the U.S.. On July 23, 2020, for example, the defense budget notably included a plan to explore military adoption of the technology.

For his part, Arrieta had nothing but praise for the HHS’s pivot to blockchain technology, telling Forbes that it will save “somewhere around $33 to $40 million” in five years. Blockchain technology will become an “anchor in the marketplace, at an individual, company, agency, and national level,” in his view, with Arrieta proclaiming that “the use of blockchain with COVID-19 will be truly impactful in demonstrating the usefulness of this key new technology.”

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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