By now, you’ve probably heard that the COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the US are unlike any ever developed. Traditionally, vaccines have relied on a weakened or disabled form of a virus to train the body’s immune response to detect and quickly eliminate that type of threat. By contrast, these COVID-19 vaccines use mRNA to trigger an immune response.
Just five years ago, the pharmaceutical technology necessary to create mRNA vaccines didn’t exist, which demonstrates the exponential pace of technological development in the industry. Other technologies vital to vaccine development include high-performance computing and advanced genetic sequencing. But while emerging pharmaceutical technologies make most of the headlines, the tools needed for breakthrough developments aren’t always on the cutting edge.
One of the most important differences between the COVID-19 pandemic and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 is the advent of the internet and the power of near-instantaneous communication. These tools have connected people, researchers, and governments around the world to help coordinate not just groundbreaking R&D, but also more mundane matters, such as the needs of pharmaceutical supply chains, logistics and (of course) funding.
As the vaccines become more widely distributed and the fight against the virus begins to tip in humanity’s favor, it’s important to remember that pharmaceutical technology isn’t just about the tools in the lab — it’s about an entire slew of resources companies can rely on to accelerate the development of treatments from start to finish.
According to a 2020 GlobalData survey of pharmaceutical companies, respondents are focusing on using technology to improve areas such as customer engagement, business innovation, sales enablement and workforce empowerment, in addition to operations enablement and innovation. For the companies hoping to be leaders in the space, that means utilizing technology in these key ways:
Implement digital strategies
A 2020 GlobalData survey found that digital strategies have become a more urgent priority in the healthcare industry, with 30% of companies responding that they’re creating digital strategies, up from 26% in 2019.
Digitization is important for the front end and commercialization, but it’s also important for the back end in areas such as pharmacovigilance. For example, with the right technology in place, companies can quickly track down a batch of spoiled vaccines that might bring vital production resources to a grinding halt without this preventive measure. Being able to leverage these and other technologies is a key imperative, and that means digitization across the enterprise.
Connect the dots with partnerships
The pharmaceutical industry is like many others in that it’s not always possible to bring every desired capability in-house. The same technology that helped all kinds of businesses navigate the pandemic is connecting pharmaceutical companies with partners that can help them accomplish great things.
Even Johnson & Johnson, the creator of the third vaccine available in the US, had to find manufacturing partners such as Merck in order to produce the vaccine on a global scale.1 The two companies are working together to produce vaccines around-the-clock. Johnson & Johnson is even pairing up with Sanofi, a pharmaceutical company based in Europe that attempted to develop its own vaccine, to perform final steps and bottling.2 The complexity of distribution alone shows that partnerships are critical.
Prioritize business enablement
When most people think of transformative technology in the pharmaceutical industry, they think about the ways tech can revolutionize R&D. This application is critically important, but tech can also potentially influence almost every aspect of pharmaceutical companies.
For example, technology can help hiring departments market open positions to the best talent — talent that plays a crucial role in drug and vaccine development. Onboarding technology such as a company application can help ensure that these new hires are engaged as soon as they accept their job offers and that the process of getting their laptops, work phones, ID badges, and payroll information is quick and seamless.
A wise person once said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The pandemic is a crisis and a catastrophe, but it also spurred the adoption of critical new technologies; the transformations we’ve seen in one year in the pharmaceutical industry would have taken five without the coronavirus crisis. While most of the attention is given to emerging pharmaceutical technologies that promise to deliver exciting advancements in drug and vaccine development, technology is also empowering more mundane business improvements across every department of pharmaceutical companies that will no doubt have outsized impacts down the road.
Srini Rajamani is Vice President & Sector Head – Consumer and Life Sciences, Wipro Limited.