For the past decade, a paradigm shift towards digitisation of society has been unfolding. The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this process exponentially and has led to an almost fully digitised society. Healthcare is no exception! Digitisation has enabled shorter product development cycles, and it is believed that this shift in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry is here to stay.
Go digital, or go dark: Why digitise pharma?
One of the key benefits of applying digital technology in the pharmaceutical field is that it can significantly shorten the product development time. Modern technology enables companies to find a more targeted sample for clinical trials, while data analytics allow for larger pools of data to be analysed quickly and more efficiently. Traditionally, pharmaceutical companies have been hesitant to employ digital technology to its full capacity due to potential risks such as hacking and design flaws. As digital technology modernises and becomes increasingly efficient, multinationals such as Siemens recognise that the benefits for pharmaceuticals outweigh potential risks. However, there is no denying that investing in new technologies can be challenging as even small errors can lead to life-changing patient outcomes.
Lengthy drug development cycles have long been an obstacle for the pharmaceutical industry, as the sector’s priority remains for the product to reach patients swiftly. In addition to this, traditional research and development programmes have proven to be expensive and inefficient. By incorporating artificial intelligence and machine learning, the industry is assessing bigger, more complex data sets at a much higher rate than what was made possible by physicians. For instance, the emergence of biomolecular platforms in the pharmaceutical sector have enabled a single platform to design multiple new therapies.
Digital methods provide an opportunity to reduce the failure rate of trials, which has conventionally been quite high in the pharmaceutical arena. Corporations can save tremendously on developments costs, as digital methods establish the efficacy rates of the products relatively fast.
It is important to note that traditional clinical trials are not as cost-efficient when compared to the fast-paced rhythm of digitally shaped trials.
Bottom to top: Collaboration with smaller bio-tech companies to optimise product development
Digitisation of pharmaceuticals has contributed to an exponential rise in bio-tech start-ups that are disrupting the entire industry. These organisations are set up in a way that allows them to innovate with new technologies and ground-breaking telehealth practices. It is no secret that bigger pharmaceutical companies are struggling to keep up with the cutting-edge products being delivered by smaller bio-tech firms. To gain a competitive edge in the pharmaceutical market, experts believe that companies should partner with smaller bio-tech companies and learn from their newer, more agile practices.
Regarding AstraZeneca’s collaboration with the smaller bio-tech Benevolent, Executive Vice President Sir Mene Pangalos said:
“By combining AstraZeneca’s disease area expertise and large, diverse datasets with BenevolentAI’s leading AI and machine learning capabilities, we can unlock the potential of this wealth of data to improve our understanding of complex disease biology and identify new targets that could treat debilitating diseases.”
Perhaps the most important collaboration in the pharmaceutical industry, which will go down in history for its impact and importance, was between a big pharmaceutical company and a small bio-tech firm.
The multinational Pfizer partnered with the much smaller BioNTech in early 2020 to develop a vaccine for COVID-19, and was the first to be approved for use with a stunning 95.6% efficacy rate. Now with millions of doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech being distributed across the globe, CEO Albert Boula recognises that the vaccine product development cycle was enhanced by the expertise of smaller biotech companies.
Success during the pandemic: Digitisation as a tool to accelerate vaccine development.
The pandemic emphasised the digital shift that had already started in the pharmaceutical industry. Digital channels now play a far greater role in pharmaceutical companies and for practicing healthcare professionals than before the pandemic. A digital transformation of development processes was a necessary component to dramatically shorten the timeline for Covid-19 vaccines.
Usually, vaccines take years to develop and pass clinical trials. However, thanks to design and manufacturing tools employed by pharmaceuticals over the last decades, companies such as the Chinese Sinovac Biotech and the American Moderna were able to develop effective vaccines within just a year of the COVID-19 outbreak. For instance, digital twin technology has been an integral component of the manufacturing process. A digital twin can help link experts to design, structure and test strategies and develop a multitude of process improvements virtually.
Historically, data management was a human-intensive venture that required a large amount of time. Technology transfers would take years to send drug development to the manufacturing stage. The COVID-19 vaccines have shown that digitisation and subsequently improved data management means that technology transfers can be done in months instead of years. It is worth noting that digitisation in pharmaceuticals poses certain risks, for instance, cybersecurity threats are deeply concerning given that hackers are already targeting COVID-19 supply chains and are stealing vaccine development data.
Ultimately, the key role of digitisation in speeding vaccine development is a testament to the notion that digital methods can accelerate product development cycles. Shortened product development cycles offer pharmaceuticals a multitude of benefits, including the opportunity for higher profits, more effective customer outcomes and more efficient backend business operations.