The pharma sector needs to improve its capabilities in data gathering and analysis with the help of AI and computational technologies to identify key gaps, detect patterns and develop countermeasures as a matter of exigency in the battle against zoonosis
Public health leaders have been urging all countries to ramp up their capabilities for detecting and controlling disease outbreaks for years.
Take Ex-Director-General of WHO, Dr Margaret Chan for example. In March 2009, at the 23rd Forum on Global Issues, she had said, “Surveillance for emerging diseases contributes to global security. If basic surveillance and laboratory capacities are compromised, will health authorities catch the next SARS, or spot the emergence of a pandemic virus in time to warn the world and mitigate the damage?”
Cut to 2020, it is evident from the precipitous decisions and drastic yet half-baked measures taken across countries to tackle the coronavirus pandemic that the world remains, as the current WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus puts it, ‘dangerously ill-prepared’ to deal with an outbreak of this scale and scope.
A holistic framework: An urgent need
So, one of our earliest learnings from the coronavirus pandemic is the need for better strategies for more effective preparation and response against such outbreaks in future. And the time to act is now! Since most of these emerging diseases seem to have a zoonotic origin we will have to create a framework which is holistic and interdisciplinary to identify key gaps, detect patterns and develop countermeasures as a matter of exigency.
As Pushpa Vijayraghavan states, “A blueprint that countries buy into should be championed and advanced into execution as soon as the world gets back on its knees.”
Combining the power of data, AI and computational technologies
And, leveraging the power and potential of data with the help of computational technologies and AI has emerged as central to this framework. If ‘One Health’ is the strategy to execute then data is the weapon to wield in this war.
To use another metaphor, data is the lighthouse that can lead the world towards coherence as it navigates a sea of chaos. Which is why we are witnessing collaboration at a level which is unparalleled between researchers and experts across the globe to counter the COVID-19 outbreak. We have also observed knowledge-sharing through various digital platforms including Twitter to analyse and discuss the data that is being generated on this front, be it for gathering evidence to comprehend transmissibility, risk of geographic spread, routes of transmission, and risk factors for infection or developing new vaccines and therapeutics.
So, how is life sciences sector, as frontline soldiers of this war, leveraging the power of relevant, accurate and actionable data to tilt the odds in our favour in the war against zoonosis? What more can be done to utilise data more effectively in future?
Let’s seek the answers from a few stakeholders themselves.
Improve surveillance and monitoring: Creation of a scientific and factual database with constant health surveillance is key to informed decision making and appropriate public health action.
For instance, as Rajiv Gandhi, MD & CEO, Hester Biosciences and Dr Shankar Chinchkar, VP-Manufacturing Science & Technology Division (MSAT), Hester Biosciences India emphasise that data gained through surveillance can help promote evidence-based, good, hygienic practices in the management of livestock, poultry and pets which will go a long way in the prevention of zoonotic diseases. Likewise, wildlife diseases surveillance will help gain information about the etiologies of viruses and bacteria that wild animals harbour and help predict as well as control outbreaks of zoonotic diseases like Nipah.
Chinchkar and Gandhi also add that an improved understanding of infectious diseases in animals can help in the development of more effective vaccines and medicines that can prevent and cure these animals of these afflictions and thereby protect humans too from getting these diseases. Thus, an effective surveillance system guides healthcare stakeholders to intervene quickly and stop the spread of disease by offering rapid early warning information.
Kaustubh Savant, Senior Industry Analyst, Transformational Health Practice, Frost & Sullivan also explains, “With the advancement of new age diagnostics, data informatics, and communication technologies, there is a possibility of an outbreak risk being flagged at animal origin level in the future.”
Thus public health informatics is an expanding field with the potential to optimise collection, classification, analysis and presentation of health data in an integrated and effective manner.
Enable faster drug development or repurposing: The role of data to develop real-time predictions and support healthcare workers, pharma professionals and policymakers with the intel they can utilise to foresee the impact of the coronavirus and take adequate measures is also crucial. Supreet Deshpande, CEO of NovaLead Pharma explains, “Use of modern technologies in research and development is essential for pharma companies to leverage available data and improve clinical outcomes. Better treatments can be designed and developed rapidly with the use of computational technologies for reliable and rapid prediction, trust-worthy prioritization and informed go/no-go decisions.”
Savant highlights, “Advancement in technologies like clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR) and portable sequencing could provide an alternative for cheap, accurate and on-field diagnostic solutions. Artificial Intelligence and Big Data solutions are being developed to enable predicting high-risk population, identifying pathogens, the drug discovery process, and improvement in public health.”
Likewise, Arno Tellmann, Head Global Drug Development India, Novartis points out, “Besides addressing the cost and time constraints, we need data and digital technologies to also find innovative ways to treat diseases for which there are only limited or no treatment options available today. We need to explore areas in research and development where we can apply artificial intelligence to make a significant impact. For example, at Novartis, one of the processes we have identified is clinical trials. We have a digitally-enabled nerve centre at our Basel campus, which enables us to monitor the progress of our worldwide clinical trials in real-time. The centre monitors all of our 500 ongoing clinical trials at thousands of sites around the world and anticipates any problems or hold-ups, which could cause expensive delays. Such interventions can drastically accelerate the pace of research and development.
“Data in the pharma industry includes electronic health records, biomedical signal data, patient statistics, imaging data, discovery related literature, experimental data, genomic data, proteomic data, and records on clinical studies. If we succeed in mining these vast data sets, we will possibly be able to generate insights and find new targets. Likewise, it could help us find new indications for existing drugs so that we do not have to reinvent the wheel every time but rather build on what we already have,” he adds further.
Detailing the role of data and use of computational technologies in dealing with COVID-19, one of the most important challenges faced by the world today Deshpande details, “The main challenge in infectious diseases is of pathogen mutations and new pathogens. A newly mutated virus or new virus may not have a potent vaccine or drug that effectively fights it. This scenario opens the potential for rapid proliferation of the disease, potentially making into a pandemic. The recent COVID-19 pandemic is the case in point. Drug repurposing strategies with computational technologies can rapidly screen the promising drugs against a range of viral and human targets, specific to the infectious diseases, and come up with the potential drug candidates. Being a known drug, such candidates can then be fast-tracked through the regulatory process to make into viable medicinal options to fight the disease.”
Optimise procurement and supply of essential raw materials and drugs: The pharma industry is dealing with a double attack due to the coronavirus pandemic. On one hand, pharma companies have the responsibility to guarantee that access to medicines is not impeded while on the other hand, they have to ensure that their inventory has enough raw materials or components which are essential to make the drugs. This, in turn, has made it abundantly clear that the sector needs to redesign its entire supply chain so that it can withstand any contingency or disruption.
As Sameer Sah, Partner and Varun Narayan, Senior Associate at Khaitan & Co advise, in an exclusive article shared with Express Pharma, “The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the importance having a risk management framework in place that focuses on the evaluation of potential issues arising from the loss of a supply chain partner or location. Having alternate supply arrangements, to the extent possible from a quality perspective, reduces potential disruption while ensuring adequate stockpiles provides a buffer against temporary turbulence.”
And, data can ride to the rescue here as well. It can help pinpoint gaps with both real-time and predictive analytics, find new vendors if your current sources are unable to supply, anticipate demand and optimise transportation costs, help introduce new products if demand arises and more. These data insights can serve us very well in future and improve the pharma supply chain’s preparedness towards emergency of any nature.
Building a co-ordinated combat strategy
Thus, data analytics, guided by computational technologies and AI, will help us become less vulnerable in the fight against emerging infectious diseases including zoonosis. We need to start investing significantly – both intellectually as well as financially to leverage the power and potential in these areas effectively and ensure that our future stays bright and healthy.