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Regulatory agencies have provided various leverages to adopt digital technologies in business operations

Souvik Chatterjee, Practice Head, Pharma at Tata Elxsi talks about how the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated tech-transformations in the life sciences industry, be it drug development, manufacturing, clinical trials, pharmacovigilance, regulatory approvals or sales and distribution, in an interview with Lakshmipriya Nair

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As a technology partner, tell us how COVID-19 is causing a metamorphosis in the life sciences industry. Which areas of the pharma value chain will see the most far-reaching changes? What will be the drivers?

There has been a tremendous impact on the entire life sciences sector especially on the research institutions and pharma companies due to the pandemic. Drug manufacturers have to deal with regulatory frameworks and also fasten the process right from finding the drug molecule to large scale production and distribution. The pharma companies are focusing on identifying the molecule and our focus is on partnering with pharma companies to expedite new drug approval and drug repurposing for COVID-19 treatment, providing the risk-benefit analysis to provide the best medicine to patients. Today we see a push in adoption and embracing digital technologies for ease of doing business. Regulatory agencies have also provided various leverages in adopting digital technologies in business operations. e.g. FDA announced updated guidelines on digital therapeutics considering the COVID-19 outbreak and management of diseases remotely. Telemedicine, virtual training, robotics and AI are deployed in the pharma industry that can help to save lives. 

Tell us about the technologies that will take centre stage as the pharma sector tries to improve its preparedness to deal with such crises in future?

Artificial intelligence is playing a vital role in drug design, development and to manage regulatory compliance activities like pharmacovigilance or regulatory affairs activities. The time taken to find the right drug candidate has reduced considerably due to AI. According to Insider Intelligence’ AI in Drug Discovery and Development report, AI could curb drug discovery costs for companies by as much as 70 per cent. IoT can improve the efficiency of the manufacturing sector by means of tracking and gathering information during the shipment of drugs. Blockchain is another great technology that can bring transparency to the pharma sector and also reduce the costs involved in manufacturing. With the digitalisation of research and development and the adoption of various technologies, we also foresee a lot of importance of cybersecurity in the coming days.

What can the life sciences industry learn from other sectors which have deployed and leveraged technology more effectively?

Pharma and life sciences industry, being highly regulated with multiple stakeholders including patient, manufacturer, regulatory bodies, payers etc., has been slow and cautious in adopting various digital and automation technologies. Inherently the industry adopts technologies that are proven and tested in other business domains. The life sciences industry has already started exploring various technologies which are used in other industries for some time like cloud computing, data analytics, automation, robotics, AI/ML, sensors and many other technologies to improve operational efficiency. Businesses will cross leverage best practices from other industries like healthcare, automobiles etc. where supply chain and manufacturing operations have been highly automated with the use of robotics and minimal human intervention. We foresee greater technology adoption, not just in matured markets like the US, Europe and Japan; but also in emerging markets like LATAM, APAC and MENA countries.

How can pharma companies accelerate their tech transformations? What are the steps that aid this process? What are the common mistakes to avoid?

COVID-19 has led to the rapid adoption of technology by pharma companies. Pharma companies have started exploring to integrate technology into all their processes including drug development, manufacturing, clinical trial, pharmacovigilance, regulatory approval, sales and distribution.

The biggest challenge the companies CTO is facing – there are multiple groups of business processes working in silos and each process business has various technological requirements. This increases a lot of cost and duplicate systems and technologies. Another challenge posed is should it be a “build strategy” or “buy strategy”; and recent trends has shifted to “buy strategy”.

We believe, the most important factor is to build an entire landscape of process and technologies currently being used and redefine the five-year strategy based on future requirements. Also, build one-year and two-year tactical plans for automating some of the manual processes that can help in achieving the five-year transformation strategy. This will help in removing some of the old technologies and also provide the opportunity to re-use any existing platforms or technologies.   

Everyone is talking about immersive technologies these days. How can it be applied to the pharma sector? In which areas of this sector can it create maximum impact, especially in a post-COVID world?

AR/VR technologies can be used to provide a unique product experience and it is one of the best ways to market a product. In the pharma sector there is a lot of opportunity for immersive technologies especially in research, manufacturing, diagnostic and planning, product design and to reach out to patients. Global companies nowadays are heavily dependent upon virtual reality solutions for drug research and product design. Disease or any medical condition can be easily explained to patients through simulation technology. VR is also being used to treat several mental disorders.

What will be the next frontiers in drug development and delivery? What kind of innovation are we likely to see in this sphere as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?  

COVID-19 has made us realise how well equipped one has to be to combat a pandemic. As it spread like a forest fire, we had to buckle up to find a vaccine at the earliest. We need to ensure three things during such emergencies – quick identification of drug candidate, faster approval of a new drug and real-time analysis of patient safety to mitigate any risk. AI and Machine Learning can reduce the time and cost taken to produce a drug or vaccine. To prevent counterfeit drugs, blockchain technology is used. Robotics will also play an important role in the automation of the drug manufacturing process.

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