Tracking Vaccination History With Invisible Tattoos

Nowadays, we still rely on medical records to tell when our last vaccinations were. For social workers in developing countries, it’s an incredibly difficult task especially if there isn’t a good standard in place for tracking vaccinations already.

A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology may be providing a solution – they’ve developed a safe ink to be embedded into the skin alongside the vaccine, only visible under a special light provided by a smartphone camera app. It’s an inconspicuous way to document the patient’s vaccination history directly into their skin and low-risk enough to massively simplify the process of maintaining medical records for vaccines.

The tatoo is made up of tiny quantum dots – semiconductor crystals that reflect light – that glow under infrared light. The pattern is delivered using dissolving microneedles made up of polymers and sugar. While the solution remains in the proof-of-concept stage, the researchers were successfully able to detect patterns embedded into the skins of rats nine months after the initial injection. On human cadavers, the patterns remained identifiable after five years of simulated sun exposure.

This could certainly mean new possibilities for decentralized information delivery and storage. Alongside biodegradable implants and power pills, we could be looking at an exciting frontier for biohacking.

55 thoughts on “Tracking Vaccination History With Invisible Tattoos

  1. “they’ve developed a safe ink to be embedded into the skin alongside the vaccine, only visible under a special light provided by a smartphone camera app.” First off, is other ink used for regular tattoos not safe? And secondly, “special light provided by a smartphone camera app.” should trigger anyone’s BS detector to be fair, especially on a tech site like this… But at least they got something magical sounding for the marketing department.

    “The tatoo is made up of tiny quantum dots – semiconductor crystals that reflect light – that glow under infrared light.”
    Last time I checked, non biologically degradable materials tended to be rather bad for the body in general, especially long term, but I guess these things aren’t going to be flowing around in one’s bloodstream, so it might be safe.

    But, if it only is an IR reflector, then why the hell does it need to be “semiconductor” based?

    It is at least a semi interesting idea, though, there is likely simpler solutions in existence, like stamping one’s medical details onto a necklace like a lot of organizations already do…

    1. It’s probably IR fluorescent, emitting visible light when exposed to IR.

      I wouldn’t want this though, because it’s basically the definition of an unnecessary medical procedure. It could leave a scar, or maybe be visible under the right lights, and… I’m quite sure there’s better ways to do this.

      Most people post their vaccination history on Facebook. I’d rather use some experimental open source central database tech, even if it’s not private, than get an unnecessary tattoo.

      1. I realize that, being a boomer, I am by definition completely clueless, but “most people post their vaccination history on Facebook”???? For what possible reason?

      2. “Most people post their vaccination history on Facebook”
        Really? Would be interested in seeing statistics to back up such a bold claim.

        Besides, if you read the second line of the article, you would find Facebook (or other online “open source central database tech” is not an option which is why a method that is stored with/on/in the recipient is being researched.
        “For social workers in developing countries, it’s an incredibly difficult task especially if there isn’t a good standard in place for tracking vaccinations already”

        1. Ok, “most people” might be a bit excessive, but a lot of my friends do.

          Tech is generally cheaper than mechanical or bio stuff, so it doesn’t seem hard to imagine a cheap satellite based system, if you were willing to relax the privacy requirements enough to develop such a thing quickly.

      3. Fl dyes loose energy and have to output a longer wavelength. If this is an IR dye it can only become a longer wavelength. That means you are not seeing that dye with out a special camera.

      4. “emitting visible light when exposed to IR.” “maybe be visible under the right lights”. Like when out in the sun, the world’s largest IR emitter, and would defeat the whole “only visible under a special light” idea.

        Though the idea that a regular smartphone camera can see it is a fairly bogus thing to start with. Not that specialty cameras are expensive. After all, we likely don’t need anything too fancy here, just a regular CCD/cmos camera without an IR filter should likely suffice. And resolution wise, it probably doesn’t need to be the fanciest thing either.

    2. did not have your morning coffee yet or something?
      ink is a general term you would for sure not want to put inkjet ink under your skin so yes safe ink as in safe to use on or in your body whats so hard to understand about that?
      plenty of specialty inks/pigments that only react so certain wavelength the wording is a bit vague i agree but it could be as simple as using a VIS blocking filter on you phones camera to pick up infrared light form the tattoos.
      err soooo basically your saying implants, prosthesis , tooth-fillings and tattoos are bad and unsafe? because they are all non biologically degradable things we put in our bodies. you should google for bio-compatible materials and you will see that there are plenty of substances which can be uses without any problems in the body.
      semiconductor based ink/quantum dot pigment would be a big advantage for durability. most natural/biological dyes tend to be susceptible to degradation by light over the long run.
      necklace and paperwork get lost limbs not so much remember they are talking about developing countries here.

      1. Yes, ink is a very general term, that is why I specifically wrote, “ink used for regular tattoos”…

        My statement in regards to the “only visible under a special light provided by a smartphone camera app.” is that it is marketing BS, regardless if there is a grain of truth behind it. Though, a lot of smartphone cameras do have IR filters. (Though, some IR of shorter wavelengths can for some cameras make it through the IR filter.)

        That there is cameras that can see IR light without much issue is a fact, and that some smartphone cameras lack IR filters is also a thing. But calling that “special light provided by a smartphone camera app.” implies that ANY smartphone can provide IR light by just having the right software, and that frankly isn’t true.

        “err soooo basically your saying implants, prosthesis , tooth-fillings and tattoos are bad and unsafe?”
        No.

        I specified: “non biologically degradable materials tended to be rather bad for the body in general”
        Do note the word “tended” ie, not all material….

        That there are many materials that are bio-compatible is true, though, is quantum dots such a material? (Now, quantum dots is likely a vague term, just like “ink” so it probably depends….)

        But most semiconducting materials tends to be toxic, like arsenic, boron, indium and even antimony is toxic in some of its forms. Not that silicone (as in crystalline silicone), nor germanium were bio-compatible to start with.

        So for something as simple as an IR reflector, why does this need to be so fancy is my main question?
        (Though, skin is a rather good at attenuating IR, so that is one reason it needs to be better at its job.)

        But in the very end, why even use something this involved, when there are other solutions already in existence, by far the simplest one is to just stamp a letter or two into a piece of metal and hang that around the person’s neck.

        Not that vaccinations should have any long term effects on one’s medication regardless.

        1. Vaccine history needs to last as long as the person does –
          some vaccines you only get a few of (preferably early in life).

          Some vaccines need booster after spans of many years (10 years or more)

          Vaccines are expensive (can’t afford to just revacinnate everyone in a country over and over).

          Physical items get lost/destroyed/etc.

          People don’t remember all the vaccines they have had and when (especially when they are
          infants/children).

    3. AFAIK the UV ink used in tattoos is ‘not approved for human use’ but is used for cattle and fish. There’s lots of people who have the unapproved tats that seem to be ok but medical issues can take a lifetime to show up. I presume it’s mostly a matter of the manufacturer not wanting to jump through needless hoops

    4. I work at a university so I have access to the full text. Your BS sniffer was accurate… it’s a bit more than just a “special smartphone app”:

      “To enable the imaging of NIR QDs in a field setting, we designed an inexpensive, smartphone-based imaging system. A 780-nm NIR light-emitting diode (LED) was paired with an 800-nm short-pass filter and aspheric condenser with diffuser to excite the QDs (Fig. 4A). For NIR fluorescence detection, a Nexus 5X smartphone (Google) was stripped of its stock short-pass NIR filter and paired with an 850-nm long-pass color glass filter and an 850-nm long-pass dielectric filter set in a poly(lactic acid) three-dimensional (3D)–printed phone case (Fig. 4B).”

      I’m disappointed that they didn’t talk about how you would actually encode your vaccine history into the tattoos. I’d want at least what the vaccine is, a timestamp, error correcting codes, and maybe a digital signature from the administering clinic or hospital… seems like it might be a lot of data to squeeze into the patch.

      What happens when the next time you get a vaccine they put it right on top of your previous one?

    1. Inks used in tatoos are not approved by the FDA.
      They are considered cosmetics. The FDA does not investigate their safety before-hand.
      If there is a problem, they may investigate/do something.

      So basically they are not tested for safety, and you get a tatoo at your own risk.

      There is also no general regulation of those applying tatoos in the US- e.g. that
      equipment be sterilized, etc. (Up to local jurisdictions.)

    1. If you give a benign system an axe, it will use it to chop firewood.

      If you give a totalitarian regime an axe, it will use it to cut off your arm.

      Of course this could be misused, there is no technology that cannot be used to inflict harm. In this use case any systemic gathering of personal information has a large potential for public benefit and personal harm, depending on how it’s used.

      You can’t make an instantly searchable, difficult to control or erase database out of tattoos though. This concept has the right to be forgotten built right in.

      1. Exactly. I remember with horror stories of children having their “vaccinated arm” cut off by some rebel terrorist opposition group in some African country. It is a mad idea.

        1. I think it’s more to the point that technology is morally ambiguous. It doesn’t care about morality; that’s a human concept (as much as ‘caring’ is), not an application of physical mechanisms in novel ways.

          It’s sort of like asking the sun about third world politics. The sun can only answer with a dull roar, and if you can hear it then you’re probably too close and are burning in its atmosphere. Something of a categorical failure on many fronts.

  2. Robert Heinlein described this in one of his Juveniles. I think “Farmer in the Sky” but can’t find my copy.

    They are emigrating to Ganymede (after terraforming and an atmosphere added) and have all kinds of medical tests, and probably inoculations, and medical results tattooed on.

    Obviously it’s very tiny print.

    There’s a passage about where the tattoos go, I think the main character chooses an otherwise hidden place, but decides against the foot because he had things to do so avoiding sitting down while it healed wasn’t a problem. But some women had it done in invisible ink.

    I may not be reme!bering properly as to who got it where, but nvisible ink and out of tye way was covered.

    Of course with so many getting tattoos in recent times, a medical tattoo wouldn’t stick out, but anyone close enough could read it. A variation on “The Scarlet Letter”.

    Is tyere a reason this reality uses tattoos and not biochips?

    1. “Is there a reason this uses tattoos and not biochips?”

      Probably to keep the equipment needed to read the information simple, like a cellphone camera which can detect the IR light reflected from the dots. If it were a biochip, and if I’m understanding what you mean by that term, then a special reader for the chip would be needed to access the info, which may not be available in third-world situations.

      1. NFC based ID implants are both cheap and fairly common. (Typically used for house pets and such, the world over.)
        Though, tagging people with such is seen as a bit 1984-ish. (Especially since a lot of people think NFC communication reaches for miles and has GPS tracking included… I don’t need to say that this is bogus, and that the first to letters of “NFC” stands for Near Field, as in a few centimeters or less. But people get squeamish regardless and there are other security implications in the end too.)

        And the equipment needed to read them is almost as simple as having a smartphone with NFC communication. (IIRC)

        1. If you can think of it, then some governments already be looking into it.
          https://twitter.com/summerinsmokehk/status/1201160056454053889?s=21
          >Fishy facial recognition technology was suspected to be spotted in today’s march from Charter Garden to the U.S. Consulate in #HongKong.

          Some comments below:
          >I think it’s collecting data which is generated from the new HK ID Card. I saw there were some small green boxes flashing on the persons. I think it shows ID Card no.

          FYI: HKID has been upgraded with high res pictures specifically for facial recognization as well as RFID along with full finger prints. Citizens are also expected to carry their ID at all time.

        2. Consider – you would need one implant for each vaccination.
          (Otherwise you are relying on some centralized database.
          How do you take that with you when your country’s government is destroyed,
          you are a refugee someplace else, after a disaster, etc.)
          To try to be robust to organizational/government disruption –
          you could have a system where data is stored by multiple entities.
          How handle privacy, data errors, …

          Expensive (for all the implants).
          Increases risk (risk in injecting the implant, risk when the implant site gets
          damaged, risk interference with other treatments – e.g. MRI, etc.)
          People may not want to be tagged.

  3. “Horrors of 1984 big brother privacy invasion.”

    It seems you are unaware that regular tattoo ink has existed for thousands of years. There are even governments in very recent history that have used it for actual tracking.
    Not to mention being close enough to a person to read something in ink is close enough to see a persons face, or fingerprints, or even obtain DNA.

    Now that you’ve been made aware of that for the first time ever, perhaps you’ll focus your 1984 attentions on those instead of a dot indicating you won’t inadvertently infect those around you and nothing more.

  4. Nazis tattooed Jews, Poles and other prisoners in their concentration camps with serial numbers. Then they either worked them to death as free labor or outright murdered, thousands a day. In comparison “1984” is not that bad. At least no one there was killed for being the wrong nationality or religion…

    And I don’t really see why this would be a problem. In my country everyone has a medical record in central database, which also contains information about vaccinations. Everything is also noted in paper documentation. Everyone born since (IIRC) early 1950s also has a small notebook that contains all the vaccinations. Incidentally the same system of notebooks is used for cats, dogs and other domesticated and farm animals as a health documentation.

    Besides that every citizen has his personal identification number used to track all sorts of information about him. There is another state database that registers where each person lives. It is mandatory to state your current location within 30 days of changing it. Everyone also has an ID number tied to ID which is updated every 10 years or when its lost or damaged, There is database that tracks, who was born, who died, who married whom, and which kids their had (clergy has their own private database for catholics). Tax Payer’s Identification number for tracking who owns what in terms of various taxes. There are also vehicle registration database that ties vehicle to its owner, Drivers License database and number, ;police records for some, Sanitary and Epidemiological database that copies medical information of contagious diseases, such as Hepatitis. There is yet another database that tracks all the small businesses, and another that tracks companies, huge database for social security (it also copies medical records of people who are on pension), army has its own database of who can serve during war (we used to have mandatory army drafts), another one that stores digital signatures of citizens who want to access some institutions online, Credit Information database that holds all the credit history, and which is accessed by banks, customs has another one, and there is also passport database. And another few that track all the benefits one can get from state. I think that’s all of them, but I might be missing a few. And all these sources of information are accessible by civil servants, police, anyone in healthcare, and no one even tracks, who accesses what and why. And all you need is that personal identification number to find out everything about a person, if you have access to all that databases (which someone somewhere has). And now they want to merge all of that into one super-database. It will be a more complete record on a person than Stasi and KGB ever dreamed of.

    Compared to that do you think a few invisible dots on an arm are privacy invasion?

    And your privacy is invaded by all the companies that track you over the Internet. And Snowden had proven that governments do the same. Officially USA can’t do that to their citizens, but everyone else is a fair game. And they can ask other countries to track US citizens. Your privacy was invaded, occupied and ransacked years ago…

  5. A custom plasmid would last longer and be more biocompatible, just slower and more expensive to read (at the moment), but you could always update or edit it in the future using CRISPR related tech. The problem with anything tattooed is that it migrates and eventually you end up with a mess of it in the lymphatic system where it can concentrate, so if it reacts with near future very high field MRI scanners you are going to get your nodes cooked.

  6. “human cadavers, the patterns remained identifiable after five years”
    Excuse my ignorance, but, no decomposition? Do they keep the bodies frozen, and if so, wouldn’t that affect the test?

    1. and the next part of that sentence is : “of simulated sun exposure.” that sounds pretty self explanatory to me. basically shine a very strong lite ( laser maybe?) on the tattoo worth 5 year of normal exposure and see if the ink is still stable.

  7. They really need to get on with getting microneedle patches and pretty much any and every other non-hypodermic method of vaccination into widespread production FAST. Anyone feeling worried about vaccination will have a lot less ground to argue from if they can just slap a patch on the skin rather than suffer the horror of a long piece of metal being driven into their flesh. There isn’t much need to worry about tracking vaccinations, in general it is safe to vaccinate someone a second time if they can’t be sure they’ve had it aleady. The point is to make vaccination trivally quick and effective, something you don’t even think about. These patches could be sent through the post, they don’t need all the fancy refigeration that injected vaccines do. If there’s an epidemic predicted you just mail these to everyone in the predicted area where it is likely to start. I fear needles and there are one or two vaccines I might have missed years ago that I ought to catch up on, I for one am f***ing pissed off that the NHS isn’t providing patch vaccines in the UK. Take away the needle and I’ll be at the doctor’s surgery in seconds (not that they’d need to waste a doctors time with routine vaccination any more if they go to patches, anyone can slap them on for themself, freeing the doctors to handle trickier tasks).

  8. Seems a bit premature to be preparing ways to track vaccination histories before we’ve even got patch vaccinations into widespread use. They need to hurry up and get these onto market in every country in the world. All suggestions are that patch vaccines will be dirt cheap, very easy to transport and store and won’t need to take up the time of medically trained personnel to administer them. Furthermore without that violating feeling of a long piece of metla penetrating your skin anti-vaccs nutters will have much less emotional aguments to use to con those who feel wary about getting protected. PATCH VACCINES NOW!

  9. Too much invasive. What about a simple online db, maybe blockchained, based upon biometric data like fingerprints? Still a mobile phone would be enough. Even, fingerprints and their answers don’t need necessarily internet, but also just SMS data

  10. Why not just tag them with RFID ear tags like cattle? I mean that is what they are being treated like, you might as well go full throttle. At least they can rip an ear tag off if they don’t want to be numbered for life.

  11. I might be being stupid here, but if you’re in this line of work (or volunteering) could you not just get all the vaccinations done, say, on your birthday, and then just repeat them every single year? It’s an obvious date to you, secret to everyone else unless you share it…. and while it sucks a bit to be getting them when they’re likely to not be required, it’s less invasive than this (and this would require someone at the location youre at understanding how to get the data).

    Maybe this *is* what currently happens, I don’t know…

  12. Will the non tattoo versions be available or is the tattoo compulsory. People already cite religious grounds for the vaccination, no need to muddy the waters by adding tattoos in the mix (which many also refuse on religious grounds).

  13. So I’m so stupid and untrustworthy that you have to mark me like an animal to make sure I take my shots? I’m all for vaccinations but this? They can kiss the fattest part of my ass.

    1. I don’t read it like that.

      I know I had measle and something else as a kid, but I suspect others don’t know because they were too young (the important ones are done when young) or have bad memories. I kniw I was vaccinated against pneumonia, but I had the shot a few months ago. Maybe adults who see doctors more frequently than I have for most of my life wouldn’t notice vaccinations as adults. Not everyone is that intelligent, so they might miss details.

      I can see this goojg both ways. I now have a bad kidney, a tattoo might be uzeful in an emrgency. I also have a rare incurable disease, carrying that information around might be useful if I fell ill. I’m surprised they discovered it after only two weeks last year. Allergies can be fatal too.

      The flip side is that naybe a tattoo wouod be used to sort people out.

      Medic Alert bracelets do a simioar thing, but no details to the average person. It also requires a database somewhere, and an annual fee I just learned a few months ago, never having given it thought before since maybe now it might be useful.

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