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COVID19 is fresh in our memories, so is the vaccines story. We received initially Chinese vaccines, Sinopharm and Sinovac which were not accepted even by UAE and Saudia. It worked well with us as we got it free from the government centers. Russian vaccine also became available at cost, and it also worked well. Chinese and Russian vaccines were based on standard technology.
Worldwide, Pfizer pioneered in developing the mRNA-based vaccine while Janssen and Astra Zeneca followed. The case of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is a case worth studying as it involved many firsts in the pharma industry. This product was developed in a way which was completely different from the conventional way.
Developing a new product, and that also on a new technology is traditionally a process that takes 8-10 years. Pfizer pulled it off in less than a year which also led to the thinking that they probably knew already about COVID19 pandemic and had prepared.
McKinsey hosted a virtual chat with the Chief Digital and Technology Officer of Pfizer, Ms. Lidia Fonseca in January 2022. The interview excerpts have been published recently. Lidia is responsible for all data and technology solutions across the organization. She has more than twenty years’ experience in healthcare. McKinsey article can be accessed through the link at the end. I shall share some excerpts to show the huge progress technology has achieved.
Pfizer’s digital group is following three strategic corporate priorities: improving health outcomes for patients, bringing medicines to them more quickly, and fueling tomorrow’s innovative therapies.
Use of digital enabled Pfizer to develop the vaccine in record time. Within four months, they scaled the clinical trial to 46,000 patients at 150 sites in 6 countries. Real-time predictive models of COVID19 incidence in various locations helped to get clinical-trial sites optimized. Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning helped their scientists to quality-check and analyze vast amounts of trial data in almost real time.
This was the most vital difference. Conventionally, site selection, and patient selection takes months. After the trial starts, the sites are visited by the quality group to check if all is done as per given parameters. The data stays with the trial site till the trial is concluded and then it is transferred to center for analysis, which takes months to do it.
Pfizer did site monitoring remotely, and the patient data was retrieved by the center every few hours.
The new supercomputing capabilities reduced toe computation time for highly complex calculations and scientific simulations by 80 – 90%. Essentially, what would take many years of labor-intensive research was reduced to months and weeks, thanks to supercomputing.
On the manufacturing front, they set up an industry-first digital operations center, which provided an end-to-end view of manufacturing and allowed to predict issues and make adjustments in real time. They also deployed augmented reality – AR to diagnose and repair equipment in their labs and manufacturing sites, which reduced travel for technicians and kept the staff safe. Within weeks, they developed new, end-to-end cold chain capability throughout the supply chain, and they could monitor shipments and temperatures anywhere in the world in real time.
Please recall that Pfizer vaccine required to be stored and shipped at -70C temperature.
On the commercial side, they have introduced digital-rep advisor, powered by AI and ML. It is a tool that helps sales teams with targeted decision support to make their interactions with the physicians more effective.
Encouraged and emboldened by the scientific and commercial success of COVID19 vaccine, Pfizer is investing into more new technologies. It is working to digitize most of the clinical work. For example, Phase II trial of another new drug is the first ever to be conducted entirely through virtual channels.
The case of development of Pfizer vaccines was a special phenomenon from every angle. It needs to be understood by the pharma industry more deeply.
It is also a great example of strong leadership in a difficult time, and keeping a focus on all stakeholders, patients, staff, regulators, and investors.
It will affect the drug development process in ways we may not understand at present.
Digital technology will also extend to the way patients receive treatment. In the next few years, they may be using mobile devices and advanced wearable technologies to access personalized, convenient, and real time digital health support.
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