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How Pfizer is leveraging technology in healthcare

Pfizer uses predictive modelling to recruit patients for clinical trials and supercomputers to identity candidate molecules that go into antiviral drugs, among other technology use cases

The speed at which vaccines were rolled out at the peak of Covid-19 pandemic would not have been possible five years ago without advancements in technology.

That was according to Pierre Gaudreault, Pfizer’s president for emerging markets in Asia region, who noted that to develop the company’s first Covid-19 vaccine in less than a year, the pharmaceutical giant had to recruit 46,000 patients in three months, which was unheard of in most clinical trials.

Speaking at the Asia Tech x Singapore conference today, Gaudreault said the company used predictive modelling to ascertain places where Covid-19 outbreaks could emerge and used the results to identity people who could participate in clinical trials, enabling it to recruit patients within a short period of time.

After the first vaccine was developed and ready to be shipped, it had to be stored at a temperature of -70 degrees Celsius to maintain its efficacy.

Gaudreault said Pfizer worked with technology and transport companies to develop storage boxes equipped with location-tracking and real-time temperature-monitoring capabilities to transport three billion doses of its vaccine around the world.

Besides patient recruitment and transportation of vaccines, Pfizer also harnessed supercomputing capabilities to develop the Paxlovid antiviral drug within nine months.

“Virtual screening of [antiviral] molecules was done using supercomputers in a virtual lab to identify and zoom in on molecules that we believe will be tailor made for the Covid-19 virus,” Gaudreault said, adding that the process would have taken years just a few years ago.

The candidate molecules were then tested in a physical “wet lab” using test tubes, alleviating the need to sift through thousands or even millions of molecules to identify effective ones that eventually make it into the drug.

“Technology in research and development will have a tremendous impact,” Gaudreault said. “We’re here to help patients live longer with a better quality of life, so faster research and development and faster therapy on the market potentially saves more lives in a shorter time.”

In the broader healthcare industry, Gaudreault noted the shift towards telehealth, where patients will demand more real-time support from physicians, even after the Covid-19 pandemic when more people started using online testing services.

“Our business model is moving to a place where a patient can be diagnosed online, have a prescription written online and have the medicine delivered on the same day,” he said, likening it to same-day delivery of groceries from the likes of Amazon.

Even after the prescriptions have been dished out, patients would have to adhere to their treatment plans to improve their health conditions.

Gaudreault said, on average, those suffering from chronic diseases such as high blood pressure tend to stop their medication after six months, adding that telehealth and diagnostics can play a role in helping patients stick to their treatment regimes.

Meanwhile, Pfizer is also looking at microfinancing, reimbursement and various go-to-market models to improve drug access in emerging markets in Asia. Gaudreault said Pfizer has partnered with some fintech firms in the region on some of those areas with moderate success.

“Equity of access to care is key for us,” Gaudreault said. “Affordability, reimbursement and financing to provide access to therapies will change lives in Asia, so how do we challenge the industry and those in fintech, banking and insurance to help us find a mechanism for people to provide their parents and children with a therapy that will save their lives?”

Gaudreault said while companies such as Pfizer have a part to play in terms of the affordability and pricing of its products, “there’s a huge call for action for fintech and tech companies to provide resources and innovative ideas to companies like us to provide access to care for populations that are in need”.

“It’s a very noble cause, frankly, if we find a way around this,” he added.

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