How barcodes are used in the fight against COVID-19

Barcodes and COVID-19
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The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the entire world, taking us all by surprise and changing our way of life in many ways. To date, there are over 250 million cases and over 5 million deaths.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, scientists and researchers throughout the world have been working hard to combat this dreaded virus, with many breakthroughs leading to the development of several vaccines. Alongside these efforts, barcodes have been used to track cases and vaccines and to ensure that the vaccine rollout is as smooth and efficient as humanly possible.

Contact tracing

The first method of determining virus exposure at the start of the pandemic was to use contact tracing. The main way to do so, which some consider controversial, was to track people’s movement so that when someone tests positive for COVID-19, it would be possible to identify and isolate other individuals with whom they were potentially in contact with. 

One of the ways used to contact trace was to require the scanning of a barcode before entering a venue. A type of two-dimensional barcode known as Quick Response (QR) codes was placed at entrances to venues and needed to be scanned in order to enter.

Conveniently, almost every individual these days has a smartphone capable of scanning QR codes, so this method of contact tracing was the simplest and quickest system to implement. If an individual tested positive for COVID-19, other individuals who may have potentially been exposed would be alerted on their smartphones. 

In South Africa, a contact tracing smartphone app was developed where such exposure data is tracked anonymously via Bluetooth proximity (no QR code scanning required).

Vaccines logistics

Out of all the many types of barcodes out there, the traditional, linear, one-dimensional barcodes that we see everyday in retail shops have been used around the world to track vaccines and ensure that the correct vaccine is transported to the correct vaccination centre.

These linear barcodes store a short string of numbers or characters and can be scanned and registered on a computer or mobile device. In this way, barcodes can ensure the security and safety of the vaccines since each vial of vaccine will have a barcode, and each batch of vaccines will have a batch code. These barcodes will be scanned when they leave the lab and again when it reaches its destination (and possibly along the way if required), thus providing control and oversight over the whole vaccine rollout process. 

The major safety aspect of barcoding vaccines is being able to track exactly where the vaccines are and where they are going, thus ensuring that each vaccine reaches its intended destination. This also prevents vaccines from being intercepted along its transportation route, which can lead to unintended consequences such as vaccines being stolen, or real vaccine shots being replaced by counterfeit vaccines.

This has occurred in many parts of the world, even South Africa, where fake vaccines have made their way into the distribution network. By rigorously tracking the route taken by the vaccine, such possibilities are all but eliminated.

Vaccine passports

Once you are vaccinated, you will receive a vaccination card. And once you are fully vaccinated, you can register and receive your vaccination certificate – in essence, a vaccine passport, with a uniquely identifiable QR code associated with you, the vaccinated individual.

In order to prevent fraud, these QR codes are only decodable by authorised devices. In the future, proof of vaccination will most likely be needed for travel, large gatherings, or even to attend school or university.

Hard copy vaccination certificates could and most likely will be replaced by QR codes sent directly to the individual’s mobile phone. Because each QR code is encoded such that it links the individual to the government’s COVID-19 vaccination databases, it means that these QR codes cannot be faked, thereby all but eliminating fake proofs of vaccination.

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