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Key questions about cloud in the pharmaceutical industry: Q&A with GlobalData thematic analyst

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Jemima Walker is an associate analyst in GlobalData’s Thematic Intelligence team. Her expertise lies in the healthcare industry and in themes including cloud, robotics, ecommerce, healthtech, and cybersecurity.

Here, she discusses the cloud theme with Thematic Take editor Lara Virrey, and offers an outlook for companies operating in the pharmaceutical industry.

Lara Virrey: What are the biggest challenges facing pharmaceutical companies today?   

Jemima Walker: Three of the largest challenges facing the pharma industry today would include drug discovery and development, the traditional clinical trial model, and supply chain management. Drug discovery and development is a costly and time-consuming process for pharma, taking between 12 and 18 years and costing between $2bn and $3bn. The chances of successful research and development (R&D) are low, with only 10% of drug candidates making it to clinical development.  

The traditional clinical trial model causes issues for patients, trial sites, and sponsors, primarily related to low recruitment and retention rates which lead to trial delays and high costs. Patients have poor experiences, sometimes having to travel large distances to the trial site frequently, and with little or no reimbursement of expenses. For certain patient populations it is simply not feasible, so clinical trials have a history of not being representative of populations, with minority, elderly, rural, and middle- and low- income populations often misrepresented in studies. 

Finally, pharmaceutical companies must deal with complex supply chains, that are often inefficient and vulnerable to infrastructure and performance issues. The Covid-19 pandemic exposed many of these vulnerabilities, as pharma had to fulfil staggering demand, prevent manufacturing delays, and manage supply chain bottlenecks, while also ensuring products were kept in strictly regulated environments. Supply chain disruption will continue as populations grow, particularly in countries with reduced supply chain infrastructure.  

Lara Virrey: How can cloud help pharmaceutical companies address these challenges?   

Jemima Walker: In drug discovery and development, cloud computing allows for secure R&D collaborations between research teams. It simplifies data transfer from laboratory equipment and can enable scientists to analyse results and generate outcomes faster. There are many software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions to accelerate and improve drug discovery and development processes. Examples of cloud computing in drug discovery and development range from bioinformatic and Covid-19 vaccine platforms to cloud-operated remote R&D laboratories. 

Decentralised clinical trials (DCTs) offer an innovative solution to the issues of the traditional clinical trial model. Using digital technologies to bring research closer to patients’ homes (or other local settings), DCTs increase trial access, reducing the burden on participants by decreasing the number of physical site visits. Cloud computing is a key technology enabling the shift towards DCTs and supports other technologies, including telemedicine, wearables, electronic health records (EHRs), and mobile applications. 

Digitalising data collection in supply chains and moving it to the cloud provides companies with real-time insights into the state of a supply chain, helping them anticipate shortages, reduce errors, forecast demand, and enhance compliance checks and traceability. Pharma companies can benefit the most from adopting cloud computing in supply chain management, particularly those producing complex drugs, such as vaccines and cell therapies, which require specific manufacturing processes, storage, and transportation conditions. 

Lara Virrey: What are the main use cases for cloud computing in the pharma industry?   

Jemima Walker: In general, cloud computing provides a more agile approach to operating IT architecture, it helps pharma companies to cut costs by removing the need to invest in access IT hardware and software as needed, rather than buying assets upfront. This gives them faster access to application updates, enables them to scale quickly, and cuts the cost of managing their own IT architecture. 

The pharma industry generates a huge amount of data, cloud computing helps to remove data silos across business operations and quickly process the data. Cloud helps to transform processes across the pharma value chain and supports the use of other enabling tech such as artificial intelligence (AI). 

Lara Virrey: Who is the biggest winner in pharmaceuticals in terms of cloud right now, and why?   

Jemima Walker: AstraZeneca, Sanofi, and Takeda are some of the leading adopters of cloud computing in the pharma industry. Each has invested significantly in cloud computing through partnerships with key cloud vendors such as AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud to enhance their data analytics capabilities, improve the efficiency of their operations, and increase the speed of bringing new drugs to the market.

Lara Virrey: Who is the biggest loser in pharmaceuticals in terms of cloud right now, and why?   

Jemima Walker: Any company not investing in cloud computing will fail to reap the benefits of the technology. Nowadays this goes beyond simply migrating some operations to the cloud but also taking advantage of its many use cases across pharma. For example, a company such as AstraZeneca using the cloud to increase the speed of its drug discovery and development activities, will see better performance in the future than Innovent Biologics, a Chinese developer of antibody therapies that does not invest in cloud to bring drugs to market.

Lara Virrey: What are the biggest barriers to implementation of cloud computing in the pharma industry?

Jemima Walker: Data privacy and sovereignty are two of the largest barriers to the implementation of cloud computing in the pharma industry. Moving data from in-house corporate data centres to the cloud could open businesses up to a higher risk of cyberattack, as data is no longer kept behind company firewalls. 

However, this is very dependent on the company’s own cybersecurity capabilities versus the cybersecurity capabilities of a vendor. Large cloud vendors will have teams of hundreds dedicated to data privacy and governance, which will be more effective than the considerably smaller cybersecurity teams of small pharma companies. 

Data sovereignty poses an issue for pharma wishing to work with cloud providers which do not have a data centre in the same country, thereby slowing adoption. Data sovereignty laws ensure that personal data is not accessed by other countries and jurisdictions, for some countries such as China and Russia this means keeping personal data within national borders. 

To increase implementation of cloud computing in the pharma industry and overcome the barrier of data sovereignty, cloud vendors must deploy data centres in each market to store data domestically, but this will provide more challenges for the vendor with handling different internet governance regulations in the many countries it operates in. 

GlobalData, the leading provider of industry intelligence, provided the underlying data, research, and analysis used to produce this article.

GlobalData’s Thematic Intelligence uses proprietary data, research, and analysis to provide a forward-looking perspective on the key themes that will shape the future of the world’s largest industries and the organisations within them.