Articles & stories

Shots in the arm: Covid-19 and technology are democratizing global healthcare

The pandemic has created unprecedented societal and economic challenges and, with them, unprecedented opportunities. In healthcare, searches for ‘Doctor near me’ declined by 60% worldwide even as online consultations rose by 350% at the peak of the pandemic. How is technology disrupting and revolutionizing traditional healthcare and which trends will pick up pace in a post-pandemic world?

This might be hard to do in the middle of a pandemic that we still haven’t seen the back of, but imagine, if you will, the following scenario: A world where people are diagnosed before being afflicted by a disease, vaccines are produced and shipped in a matter of months and everyone has prompt, safe and cheap access to quality healthcare when they need it. Moreover, people are happier and healthier for it.

Such a future is not only probable, but we are also well on our way to realizing it according to several experts who spoke at the 2021 Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference (AIC) and attribute the twin disruptive forces of Covid-19 and technology to helping transform the stodgy and risk-averse world of global healthcare. 

A vaccine in record time

If there is an origin story exemplifying technology’s role in helping the world deal with the pandemic, it could well be the development of Moderna’s mRNA-1273 vaccine - one of the first to be tested and administered around the world - for the novel coronavirus.

As Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel noted at the AIC, it took the company’s scientists all of two days to design a vaccine after the Chinese government shared the virus’ full genome sequence online. Barely two months later, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was using it for human trials. “What we had was a set of instructions online - we never had the physical virus - that we used to design a vaccine on our computers. It took 60 days – a new world record - from a sequence becoming available online to dosing a human. The previous fastest time was 20 months – when the NIH developed the vaccine for SARS,” Bancel explained.

But it’s not just the speed that’s noteworthy. Moderna’s mRNA technology platform is like a piece of software code that can be used to produce vaccines for a host of other viruses like the flu and the Zika virus. It also holds promise for developing treatments for a wide range of ailments that affect the lung and heart, and certain types of cancer. 

Crediting digital processes with expediting the vaccine delivery process, Bancel noted, “The need to go fast with minimal mistakes while ensuring quality can only be achieved with digitalization. It is a really big enabler.”

This idea has many takers in the industry with Alex Zhavoronkov, CEO, Insilico Medicine, pointing out that tools like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics can help the pharmaceutical industry push for more novel targeted approaches and develop new drugs faster. 

“Novelty means risk, so we need real-time data and we can only achieve that with robot- driven labs because humans are biased and often discard very promising targets and molecules. Eventually, we want to ensure humans are not even in the loop,” he said.

Industry shake-up

While disruption to that extent may be still some way off for the industry, the pandemic’s impact has helped shake up a heavily regulated industry with inefficiencies and ramped up the adoption of technologies such as telemedicine. 

Fang Liu, Portfolio Manager Digital Health Fund, Credit Suisse Asset Management, noted that the US saw online doctor consultations skyrocket to almost 90% at the peak of the pandemic, up from less than 1% before. While allowing homebound patients to seek medical help, online tools are also helping pharmaceutical reps become more productive as they rack significantly more face time with busy doctors than was possible with personal visits. 

Liu added that while telemedicine is also helping expedite the drug discovery process across the board, a bulk of clinical trials are still being run on paper even in advanced markets like the US and Japan. “We are only seeing the tip of the iceberg and a lot more opportunities are out there waiting to be explored.”

Meanwhile, tools like Big Data and Cloud Computing are helping hospitals, governments and life science companies generate clinical research in a much faster and more efficient way and deliver safer, better and accessible healthcare solutions.

Regulators are doing their part to bring change to the industry too. In China, they are designing a raft of regulations that will at once promote and protect the use of data, which will go a long way to support the industry, according to Jing Yang, President, Yidu Tech.

In the US, Liu pointed out, in reaction to the pandemic policymakers have introduced rate parity to ensure doctors are paid the same rates when they see patients online, incentivizing them to encourage online visits, while Japan is now allowing first-time doctor consultations to be conducted online. In Germany, patients with chronic disorders will soon be allowed to fill prescriptions online and have the medicine delivered to their doorstep.

The digital health dream

Even as technologies like telemedicine and AI, with the blessings of stakeholders and the watchful eye of regulators, are gradually changing the global health care industry, the future is expected to bring even more disruptive transformation.

According to Zhavoronkov, the future will see the development of preventative medicine as well as treatments for aging and age-related diseases, with those aided by wearable technology holding out particular promise. “Wearable sensors, implantables allow real-time data collection that will have huge value in the future. A lot of big tech companies are looking at this space – if you can succeed at digital therapeutics you are looking at adding as much as a decade to life expectancy.”

For her part, Liu is looking at advancements in the field of Diagnostics, R&D and treatments which will help us better manage chronic conditions like obesity, mental health and hypertension. She is also optimistic about the potential of genome sequencing technology, which is rapidly becoming cheaper to use.

“This will be a real game changer. It will help the world transition from disease treatment to disease prevention, and dramatically lower healthcare costs for governments all over the world. All of this will take time and it will be a gradual process. But eventually we will get there and I can actually dream of a world where people are healthier and happier.”

While everyone can get on board with the vision of a healthy future with happy people, what does all this mean for investors? While Bancel sees significant returns for investors who are willing to bet on the promise of technologies like mRNA and be patient because “good science takes years to happen,” Zhavoronkov believes AI-powered drug discovery and development will see an investment boom. 

Meanwhile, Liu is looking at the present as the beginning of a long journey in the digitalization of healthcare and seeing industry majors earmark significant amounts of capital expenditure to telehealth. “It’s a market potentially worth billions of dollars and penetration rates are still in the low single digits. It’s clear we’re not going back to the pre-pandemic normal and these trends are here to stay. That’s why we think it’s the right moment to invest in the space.”