Even as our nation battles the second wave of Covid-19, there are increasing concerns about the possibility of a third wave encompassing India later this year. In fact, experts claim that a third wave is “inescapable.” However, its impact can be minimised; the steps we take during this period will dictate the extent to which India will be affected. To be better prepared this time around, our vaccination programme needs a boost. We need to vaccinate as many people as we can. Unfortunately, the deployment of vaccines has proven to be a challenge due to the volumes required, and the intricacies of transportation and storage. The only way India can hope to scale up and meet these demands is by embracing Industry 4.0.
Considering India’s enormous population, the herculean efforts which we are seeing across stakeholder groups to develop a vaccine are being supported by increased funding from the government as well as private sector. The average time spent to bring a vaccine from discovery to production is 10 years. To reduce this to between 18-36 months takes collaboration from multiple stakeholders and the use of disruptive technologies. In the past the complexity, regulation and cost involved in each of the vaccine development stages – exploratory, pre-clinical, clinical development, regulatory review, and manufacturing – have dragged out the process. However, today technology has become a game changer.
Advances in automating data analysis and improving visualization at each step can help ramp things up. Once scientists identify optimal compounds, the process moves to clinical trials. Advanced analytics and data visualization of expected human response to the potential vaccines allow researchers to conduct tests at scale even before vaccine candidates are administered to patients. Finally, after regulatory approval, manufacturers can combine articifical intelligence (AI) and sensor-based technologies to fine-tune the supply chain, avoiding disruption and the risk of products being spoiled in distribution.
The pharmaceutical and life sciences industries quite simply cannot develop vaccines and essential drugs with the necessary scale, safety and quality without automation. While investments in commercial manufacturing usually come in the later stages of the drug development process, companies are now rushing to scale up and automate in parallel with clinical trials—seeking to shave off months from development to production.
Two technologies seeing the most activity during the Covid-19 vaccine and treatment surge are: (i) distributed control systems that play different roles for manufacturers with everything from formulating bulk products to packaging them and (ii) independent cart technology that allows teams to move from manufacturing one item to another in zero time and does the work of several machines.
Another emergent trend that drug makers use are digital twins, which work as live replicas of all physical processes. Synced up with IoT sensors installed inside the physical plant, the digital twin generates volumes of complex data, giving an instant view of all details of operations so that every step can be optimized. With this you can produce more because the quality assurance process is done in real time, which generates less waste of resources and more importantly, time.
The greatest challenge lies in the logistics of dispensing the vaccine to the vast population. Once a vaccine is approved, it has to be distributed at an appropriate temperature and certain conditions, which makes it all the more difficult to supply it to each and every corner of the country. Also taking into consideration the challenging road conditions across cities in India, the transportation problem only worsens as it increases complexities. Consequently, it requires robust logistical & warehousing infrastructure backed by the latest digital technologies to support vaccine distribution.
As we have seen, this epidemic will continue to present unexpected obstacles for those entrusted with public health management, ranging from policymakers and health agencies to physicians and manufacturers. While the former will respond rapidly to screen for contamination and enforce control strategies on established clusters, the latter is constantly under renewed pressure to provide therapies as quickly as possible. Finding new efficiencies in vaccine production will make a big difference in handling reported cases, relieving burden on healthcare systems and leading to higher recovery rates.
Deep learning and sophisticated data visualisation techniques allow researchers to build on the body of current studies to solve the challenges involved in finding viable therapies for novel viruses. The utility of AI applies to manufacturing and delivery, where manufacturers play a major role in bringing these drugs into the market at a fast rate and in the face of considerable uncertainty.
As the race to vaccinate India’s population against COVID-19 places an intense focus on the biotech space, scientists are seeking to drastically reduce the average time to market and scale up manufacturing to meet demand. India needs to create digitally connected enterprises in the life sciences sector that can take full advantage of the latest Industry 4.0 technologies powered by cloud-based IT systems, robotics, IoT and AI.
Dilip Sawhney is the Managing Director – Rockwell Automation, India.
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