Over the past few years, while the world has been gripped by Covid-19, nearly all of the thought leaders and CEOs in pharma and MedTech have said that the pandemic, while presenting unique and significant challenges, also pushed the industry to innovate and make much-needed changes.
In her presentation at this week’s Clinical Trials in Rare Diseases Conference 2021, GlobalData’s global head of pharma and executive vice president of healthcare operations and strategy Bonnie Bain looked at how Covid-19 has disrupted the pharmaceutical industry over the past year and how some of these emerging themes will impact the industry’s performance over the next 12 months and beyond.
These research findings are based on a number of studies that GlobalData conducted over the past 12 months with industry experts, key opinion leaders and high-volume prescribing physicians.
“In some ways, the Covid-19 pandemic has served as a wake-up call for the pharmaceutical industry,” said Bain. “It forced the industry to innovate at a speed never seen before, rethink its operations, and adopt new ways of working with customers and regulators. It also significantly changed how healthcare is delivered to patients and accelerated the use of emerging technologies in an industry that has historically been risk-averse and slow to change.”
Pharma themes to watch
Bain asserted that the Covid-19 pandemic has showcased how quickly the pharmaceutical industry can embrace digital transformation, provided there is regulatory leeway and the necessity to innovate.
In her presentation, Bain cited a recent GlobalData poll that showed more than a third of respondents believed Covid-19 accelerated digital transformation in pharma by more than five years. “This is quite an astonishing result as it showcases that due to Covid-19, digital transformation became a must-have rather than a ‘nice to have’ attribute,” she said.
The poll revealed that artificial intelligence (AI) followed by big data will continue to trend as the most disruptive emerging technologies for pharma in 2021 for their potential to deliver productivity improvements and efficiencies across the entire pharma value chain – from drug discovery to how companies engage with stakeholders and patients.
AI-driven drug discovery reached some significant milestones in 2020, including the first entirely AI-discovered drug from Exscientia making it to clinical trials and the identification of an already-marketed drug as a potential therapy for Covid-19.
Bain explained that, in general, pharma has been slow to adopt AI but an increasing number of companies are now partnering with smaller AI start-ups for their expertise in drug discovery and others are actively hiring internally for AI roles.
The number of AI-related job postings in pharma has surged in 2021, emphasising the industry’s interest in the technology, and similar trends have been seen in big data.
There was a dip in job postings shortly after the Covid-19 pandemic started, but numbers recovered and have even gone beyond pre-pandemic levels since the start of 2021.
Bain said the similar trends in AI and big data postings “highlight the reciprocal relationship between the two technologies”.
Despite AI and big data being viewed as the highest-impact emerging technologies in 2021, these are not where the industry made its biggest investments in 2020.
Investment in these areas last year actually dropped more than 10% compared to 2019. The biggest investments were in social media and cloud computing – both seeing over 20% rises in spend. Bonnie explained that this increase was likely driven by the need to find alternative avenues to reach end users such as physicians and drive patient engagement.
“This investment trend showcases a greater focus on ‘here and now’ tools during the pandemic, as without them companies would not be able to carry on with daily activities,” said Bain.
“We expect this trend to shift over the next two years with pharma returning back to ‘normal’ spend and investing in big data and AI extensively once again.”
Investment in 5G is also expected to more than double during this time as optimal use of technologies like AI, big data and trends such as remote patient monitoring (RPM) will rely on high-speed networks.
Benefits of emerging tech trends
A recent GlobalData poll suggests the main benefits of emerging digital health technologies such as wearables and RPM devices will be to increase patient empowerment.
Better disease management in terms of disease tracking and adherence and added convenience are also seen as key benefits.
Despite these benefits, there are concerns about cost and data security. “These are both very legitimate concerns because patients and clinicians may need to purchase devices or remote monitoring tools as well as have adequate connectivity in place,” explained Bain. “In addition, healthcare is one of the most breached industries and the number of healthcare cyberattacks has increased since the start of the pandemic. We will also need to educate patients who are not digitally savvy to ensure they can access digital healthcare.”
In clinical trials, the most immediate use of these technologies will be in monitoring vitals such as heart rate and respiratory patterns. We are already seeing many real-world examples where biosensors and patches are being used to monitor vital signs, movement, ECG trace and oxygen levels in Covid-19 patients.
The use of these tools is expected to increase and in five years, survey respondents believe they will have a significant impact on clinical trial processes.
The biggest benefits are likely to be improved data collection, the ability to monitor patients remotely and eventual cost savings. The biggest barriers to adoption relate to data integrity and confidentiality followed by accessibility.
The future of work
“Covid-19 has allowed businesses to implement profound changes to the way we work,” said Bain. “From digitising processes and re-shaping supply chains, the pandemic will leave a lasting legacy.”
In a short space of time, Covid-19 forced many firms to compress years of digital transformation into months or weeks to adapt to reduced in-person interactions, lockdown restrictions, and a shift to remote working.
However, as Bain explained, understanding and applying new technologies requires specific skills. Otherwise, they will fail to add value if people don’t know how to harness them.
“The rushed digital transformation left many companies unprepared and without sufficient tech-savvy staff to keep up,” said Bonnie. This trend was highlighted in GlobalData’s digital transformation survey, where respondents said lack of skills and talents were the main roadblocks for digitisation efforts.
Bain also explained that Covid-19 rapidly undermined traditional sales and marketing, leading to increased demand for online marketing platforms that allow remote engagement with physicians. “This is likely to continue for some time until hospitals and other healthcare settings are no longer overwhelmed and also safe for in-person visits,” she said.
Clinical trial investigators have also increased the use of RPM, connected devices, and telemedicine to monitor participants during the pandemic. Bain said this trend is likely to continue post-Covid in line with a shift towards virtual trials.
Remote patient monitoring (RPM)
The pandemic’s restrictions added a sense of urgency to remote monitoring deployments, thus propelling emerging industry trends such as patient empowerment, telemedicine and virtual trials.
Based on GlobalData’s 2021 State of the Biopharmaceutical Industry B2B survey, RPM is expected to have the greatest impact on the pharmaceutical industry in 2021. The adoption of RPM tools will also continue to increase due to advances in technologies such as wearables, AI and the rollout of 5G.
“This is significant as immuno-oncology, followed by precision medicine, was chosen as the top trend in both of our 2019 and 2020 reports, whereas RPM was ranked fourth for both of these years,” said Bain.
Based on GlobalData’s research findings, the areas that will benefit the most from RPM are telemedicine followed by decentralised/virtual clinical trials.
Telemedicine is another technology pushed into the spotlight due to the unprecedented demand as a result of the pandemic.
“Telemedicine emerged as a critical strategy during the pandemic to limit the risk of transmission and allow patients to receive care during lockdown measures, which led to policymakers in many countries relaxing regulations to facilitate its widespread usage and adoption,” said Bain.
Decentralised/virtual clinical trials
Since early March 2020, more than 1,000 organisations supporting clinical trials have publicly announced disruptions to planned and ongoing clinical trials and more than 1,300 clinical trials have been disrupted so far.
Although suspended trials have begun to recruit participants and delays in trial initiation have levelled off, slow recruitment continues.
The upward trajectory for overall slow enrolment is expected to have significant impact on trials achieving their enrolment goals. Oncology trials continue to suffer the most disruption, followed by trials in central nervous system disease. Trials in the US have been most impacted by Covid-19.
Before the pandemic, technologies such as RPM were available for clinical trials, but their use was limited due to a lack of clear guidance on technology design, implementation and data integrity, said Bain.
Based on results from a GlobalData survey conducted last summer, RPM and shifting to virtual trials were the most common approaches that companies were using to address clinical trial disruptions.
Prior to the pandemic, a third of respondents were already using decentralised clinical trial (DCT) components, mainly to facilitate patient recruitment for rare diseases or paediatric trials. 61% said the pandemic accelerated the movement towards DCTs.
Almost 60% of respondents expect that virtual trials will be used frequently in the next one to two years. Most of the respondents highlighted improved patient participation as the biggest perceived benefit of DCTs. Additionally, the majority of respondents considered the cost of decentralised trials to be lower than that of traditional trials.
Industry growth prospect for 2021
Bain affirmed that Covid-19 will likely continue to impact all aspects of the pharma value chain in 2021 but the biggest impact will be in drug development activities, in particular clinical trials.
“However, the pharmaceutical industry has shown its resilience and ability to adapt at an accelerated pace if needed,” said Bain. “Trends such as RPM, virtual trials and adoption of AI will allow business continuity and minimise disruption.”
To access more upcoming clinical trial events, visit the Arena International website.