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Acceleration of Drug Discovery

It’s here! The last post in my new blog series on 2021 predictions in healthcare has arrived. So far, we’ve covered (1) Acceleration of healthcare reform, (2) Reconfiguration of healthcare delivery because of economic pressure (3) Rightsizing of healthcare delivery (4) Consumer first thinking (5) Exponential improvement from data, analytics, and digital technologies. I truly believe each of these predictions will significantly impact healthcare, not just this year but throughout this decade— including the final prediction: Acceleration of drug discovery.

Developing new drugs is incredibly hard, and the process is lengthy. However, the pandemic has forced both pharmaceutical companies and regulators to fast-track the development, review, and approval process for COVID-19 vaccines. Kudos to the pharma industry for discovering a vaccine for Coronavirus in such a record time that blew all industry estimates out of the water. Because of this, the pharmaceutical industry’s reputation has significantly improved. According to a recent Harris Poll, about 70% of U.S. adults surveyed said they now have a more favorable view of biopharmaceutical organizations. As I was listening to the CEO of Moderna, Stephane Bancel, talk about the development of their vaccine, it was incredible to know that within 48 hours of China uploading the digital sequence of Coronavirus on January 11th, 2020, Moderna was able to design the vaccine using mRNA vaccine technology without having the physical pathogen. The digital technology used to develop the vaccine is remarkable and transformative. It not only increased time to market but also improved efficiency and production scalability, as well as increased odds of success. There is a push in pharma companies to use more digital technology and build more resilient supply chains (Exhibit 1) to continue producing and distributing both generic and innovator drugs.


Exhibit 1

The pharmaceutical industry gains goodwill.
With multiple COVID-19 vaccines being invented and brought to the market in record time, public opinion is turning positive for pharmaceutical companies. Pfizer, Moderna, J&J, and AstraZeneca are among the companies that will reap the general goodwill for producing the COVID-19 vaccines. This change will slow down efforts to regulate drug prices, at least in the near term. On the other hand, we expect online retailers to gain even more traction, as COVID-19 has made pharmacies seem akin to nursing homes – places to avoid since they are filled with possibly contagious people. Amazon’s consumer trust, incredible delivery speed, and low prices will allow it to capture meaningful share from retail pharmacies.


Acceleration of clinical trials and drug discovery process.
In the past, vaccine and drug development took years to attain. COVID-19 created a strong need to speed up the drug discovery process, which resulted in an unprecedented level of partnership between government, academics, and pharmaceutical companies to develop the vaccine rapidly. These partnerships, the use of technologies to automate and standardize the process, and data science to analyze in concert with new genome sequencing technology feeding into bioinformatic tools accelerated the drug discovery and development process for COVID-19. Collaboration among multiple parties has resulted in the fastest vaccine development and production known in history, where pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna were able to develop, get FDA approval, mass-produce, and distribute the vaccines in under a year. This accomplishment by pharmaceutical companies is a considerable feat and will change how new drugs get discovered and produced going forward.


Another exciting development in the face of the pandemic that forced nearly everyone to stay home was the amount of remote work completed by pharmaceutical and life sciences companies. Forced to minimize in-person clinical trial visits, these companies have found ways to conduct trials remotely using virtual digital tools. The pandemic has increased the appetite for change as everyone sees the benefits of such a decentralized model. Payors and providers, awash in member and population data, can help life sciences and pharmaceutical organizations develop trial protocols that serve more diverse populations. These trials will make participation more attractive to both participants and trial investigators with remote interactions – accelerating the process. In addition, around 98% of pharma and life sciences executives surveyed by PWC recently said they expect digital investment in clinical trials to increase in 2021.(6.2)


Redesign of supply chains across the healthcare industry.
The healthcare industry is reconstructing its supply chains to be more flexible, like in the automotive or technology sectors. This modernization will drive more investments in supply chain capabilities, resulting in short-term higher costs but much bigger benefits down the line. In a recent survey,(6.3) 94% of life sciences and 86% of provider executives said that improving their supply chain overall was a priority in 2021. Specifically, supply chain transparency was their top priority. Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership to facilitate and accelerate COVID-19 vaccine development, manufacturing, distribution, therapeutics, and diagnostics, will radically change the healthcare supply chain to become a template for the industry – among other supply chain innovations.


The good news is that we are finally optimizing the use of digital technologies and tools for automation and standardization of the drug discovery process, new genome sequencing technology, bioinformatics, and data science in drug design and discovery. Modernized digital technologies will help pharmaceutical companies to increase the speed and accuracy of new drug development and industrialize the development of future drugs. With the adoption of these new technologies, should the next pandemic hit us, we can move much faster and efficiently to improve outcomes. 

As I conclude my new blog series of 2021 healthcare predictions, we are confident of one thing – the pace of change in healthcare will accelerate in 2021. We will apply the lessons learned from the pandemic, and it will not be business as usual. We will create more affordable, accessible, equitable, and sustainable healthcare for everyone as we move forward.

If you’d like to learn more about the six healthcare predictions for 2021, download the full report or, please contact me or visit our website for more information on how we’re helping healthcare leaders navigate this journey.



6.1/6.2/6.3 PWC Health Research Institute Health Executive Survey, Aug-Sep 2020



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