Seven emerging pharma industry trends to watch for in 2021

Pharma trends for 2021

2020 has opened up as many new possibilities for the pharmaceutical industry, as it has introduced in the form of obstacles. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the pharma industry, becoming a disruption that has upturned many conventional and existing channels and methods of industry operations- from introducing new projects and performing clinical trials to manufacturing and supply chain management.

Due to pandemic-fueled regulatory changes and the evolution of new technologies, even the best-known names in pharma have been forced to reconsider and broaden their digital capabilities. With the entire world hoping for an imminent COVID-19 cure, the field of research and development has emerged at the forefront of the pharma industry. 

As pharma companies continue to adapt to the unforeseen challenges, let’s take a look at seven pharma trends that will dominate the future.

1. Advanced drug discovery using AI

According to a study by the Tufts Centre for the Study of Drug Development, the estimated discovery and development cost of each FDA approved drug is around USD 2.6B. The use of AI in drug discovery can expedite the overall R&D process. Applied intelligence can improve drug discovery success rates by 8-10%, resulting in savings worth billions of dollars for the industry. AI can be used to find candidate molecules for drugs, develop compounds from scratch, and aid the process of synthesizing the molecules, with better efficacy.

As per Netscribes’ research, most of the AI-pharma partnerships as of August 2020, have been in the field of drug discovery and development.

Pharma trends AI

AI can be used to find candidate molecules for drugs, develop compounds from scratch, and aid the process of synthesizing the molecules, with better efficacy. Currently, this technology is being leveraged across various pharma processes, giving way for partnerships between AI firms and pharma companies.

For instance, Exscientia AI, a contract research organization, which aims to develop novel drugs for orphan CNS diseases, emphasizes the importance of machine learning for targeted drug discovery. Exscientia AI is establishing itself as a leader in AI-powered drug development and has made a significant contribution to the development of several new drug candidates for the treatment of CNS. It claims that its AI-based process can reduce the time spent in drug discovery from 4.5 years to as little as 12 months, and reduces discovery costs by 80%.
Atomwise, on the other hand, uses a deep revolutionary neural network known as AtomNet to strengthen the drug structure, based on its development processes. Meanwhile, Merck KGaA and AI start-up Iktos, are using generative modeling AI for rapid and cost-effective discovery and design of new compounds. AI systems and algorithms process vast amounts of information quicker and with more precision, maintain proper records, and ensure transparency when it comes to data used in drug discovery and development.

2. Automation in the pharma supply chain

Technological innovation impacts not only drug development but also the drug supply chain in aspects ranging from speed to safety to manpower. Investments in automation systems are crucial to accelerating the supply chain for personalized healthcare by ensuring that the precision required for patient safety is consistently achieved. The application of automation in pharma manufacturing can help build more resilient and flexible supply chains, reduce costs, diversify and help build stronger, more efficient, and cost-effective supply chains.

For instance, in proving the advantages and business case for the use of smart technology in the supply chain, Pfizer is joining companies such as GSK, Lilly, Novartis, and Asymchem. To develop its active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), Pfizer uses a form of automation known as Flexible API Supply Technologies (FAST)

This technology has helped make the batch unit operations more efficient, reconfigurable and streamlined, throughout the supply chain. FAST has also helped reduce the production-to-market timeline, by allowing the faster technical transfer of data and greater versatility of equipment throughout the API network.

How AI and smart technology can provide end-to-end visibility in the supply chain

pharma trends supply chain
Source: Deloitte

Novartis’ use of cloud platform-as-a-service (PaaS) to develop new technologies is another example of automation in the supply chain. It helps to get better insights and recommendations, whether commercial data, marketing data, or clinical trials, from the data that is placed on the cloud. Novartis has also partnered with Microsoft Azure to use robotics throughout its pharmacovigilance processes.

3. Accelerated digitization post COVID-19

Digital transformation in the pharmaceutical industry was already happening before the pandemic, however, it received a sudden boost since the beginning of 2020. Several pharmaceutical giants, including Novartis, Pfizer, and Sanofi have taken positive steps towards digitization, such as appointing chief digital officers to their boards and implementing a data-first approach.

When COVID-19 initially turned into a global health crisis, Pfizer was able to roll out remote communication tools within two weeks, which allowed employees to train through smart glasses and mobile phones, with global subject matter experts via augmented reality (AR).

Digital technology has also enabled the company to remotely access shop floor data as it extended its security investment to ensure remote access data safety, which became essential for continuing operations amid the pandemic. The digital preparedness of Pfizer was the result of a working partnership with Rockwell that has grown along with technology for nearly two decades.

Novartis has begun its digital transformation ranging from R&D efforts to next-generation customer interaction. The digital strategy of the company and its implementation has a clear emphasis on scaling up its efforts. As a result, Digital Function and Novartis Business Services are being brought together to create a new company called Customer & Technology Solutions (CTS), which will be effective starting February 2021. Novartis has also been managing drug development delays and its clinical trials portfolio using a variety of emerging digital technologies and focusing on quickly mitigating disruptions. 

On the other hand, Sanofi has also scaled up its digital innovation, leveraging blockchain to curb clinical trial data privacy issues, and also take a stand against counterfeit drugs. Blockchain technology builds a framework that traces a drug from manufacturing to patient. It is substantially more difficult for fake drugs to make their way to undetected patients with this end-to-end information available to government health care networks, pharmacies, and patients.

4. Move towards patient-centric care model

The COVID-19 pandemic has driven the pharma industry towards more patient-centered care. This approach requires a deep understanding of the patient’s medical condition and needs based on new knowledge sources is essential to deliver more efficient treatment and ensure better availability of those treatments.

Pharmaceutical companies may have more evidence-based treatment choices, as genetic, proteomic, and metabolomic pathways of diseases are better understood. UCB Pharmaceuticals, for instance, has leveraged patient and HCP insights to address the unmet needs of those who were prescribed their Briviact medicine.

This emphasis on treating patients with more successful drugs is encouraging drug innovators at the earliest stages of drug production to incorporate patient-centered insights. Better targeting will help the industry achieve improved clinical results and ensure that pharmaceutical companies can produce more effective medicines while improving their therapeutic value. When patient outcomes are at the heart of drug development, introduction, and commercialization, patients’ ability to find the right medicine and explore treatment options is bound to increase. 

For instance, Pfizer has increased its efforts to listen to what their patients need, across communities. Their voices have contributed directly to changes in how it conducts clinical trials and plans services and programs. It has led the company to minimize the burden on patients involved in trials, develop e-reminders for patient protection, revise the usage of wearable devices to collect more patient data, and rewrite consent forms and more patient-friendly study abstracts.

Pfizer has also created two new services available in the U.S.: ‘This is Living with Cancer’ and ‘Pfizer Oncology Together’. ‘This is Living with Cancer’ includes ‘LivingWith’, a free app that guides individuals with cancer as they navigate their lives. It helps patients and caregivers store records, monitor how they feel, connect with loved ones, and ask for support in one organized location along with everyday tasks.

Pfizer Oncology Together is a first-of-its-kind initiative for patients taking Pfizer Oncology drugs that incorporates committed ‘Care Champions’ with social-work backgrounds to help manage the challenges that surround treatment, such as finding tools to help find emotional support and adjustment, transportation, and financial assistance in the workplace.

On the other hand, to customize applicator configuration, GSK has leveraged patient insights for Voltaren, its topical anti-inflammatory drug. The company uses its Global Pain Index, an in-depth global study into physical pain and its impact on people’s lives, to gain insights into improving the clinical studies of its pain relief medicines.

5. Continued focus on oncology and immunotherapy

There has been some substantial advancement in other fields of medicine, even with COVID-19 diverting the industry’s focus. Oncology, for one, has risen to the forefront, with many clinical trials making strong progress and even some major acquisitions taking place. 

The 2020 American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) conference included critical findings of the lung cancer trial presented by AstraZeneca. Some of the first “tumor agnostic” cancer drugs were also introduced in 2020, with Bayer’s Vitravki (larotrectinib) obtaining support in the UK for tumors with reported gene fusions of neurotrophic tyrosine receptor kinase (NTRK).

Oncology has also driven some of the largest pharma mergers and acquisitions of 2020, which shows its potential for continued growth. In September 2020, Gilead acquired Immunomedics for USD 21B, which came to be the biggest pharma deal of the year. Q4 of the same year saw another acquisition in this field, as Merck bought Velos Bio, marking its place as a major player in the immunotherapy market.

According to a Mckinsey report, oncology is the world’s largest pharmaceutical therapeutic area. It is a declared priority field for ten of the largest pharma companies, with an estimated 1,700 medicinal compounds in production. As measured by both the number of new drugs being tested and the investment made by the pharma companies, there is enormous scope for innovation. In this area, precision medicine and innovative modalities, including cell therapy, offer tremendous potential to change patients’ lives and accelerate pharmaceutical development in the future.

6. A paradigm shift in how clinical trials are conducted

The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the need for clinical trial procedures to be streamlined. Decentralized clinical trials have seen a rise since the beginning of the pandemic, due to social distancing and quarantine measures. Various clinical trials have transitioned to more advanced technologies such as telemedicine platforms. Pharma companies are also paying more attention to common bottlenecks in the clinical trial process.

Types of new-age clinical trials

As a result, several techniques are being used by pharmaceutical companies to improve clinical trials, including the discovery of new patient entry points, the use of AI to compress the screening process, the development of a public understanding of the benefits of participation, the encouragement of participation by physicians and the expansion of patient diversity.

As clinical trials evolve and new trial designs arise, pharma companies will be called upon to develop new approaches for the collection, use, reuse, and sharing of trial data. Within the clinical trial ecosystem, single-use, throw-away data has been the mainstay, with as many as 80% of all data obtained being used only once. To allow sponsors to modify trial designs as new insights arise, data management strategies that treat versatility as a standard, rather than an exception, will be crucial.

With today’s focus on results and value-based payment programs, it is important to be able to interpret real-world patient data to find the best therapies and enhance patient outcomes. As a primary way to speed up diagnosis and treatment of illness, EHR and clinical trial-based synthetic data sharing have evolved. In evaluating clinical regimens, detecting and minimizing medication side effects, and optimizing dosages and synergies in multi-drug therapies, the use of this synthetic data holds tremendous promise.

7. M&A activity to bounce back

Compared to 2019, 2020 was a slow year for mergers and acquisitions in the pharma industry, due to the economic instability brought about by COVID-19. It saw nearly USD 184B in M&A deals for the industry, which was one of the lowest years in almost a decade.

M&A deals in 2020 vs. 2019

pharma trends acquisitions

In 2020, pharma companies mainly focused on establishing partnerships to help fight the pandemic and develop vaccines. Pharma and biotech companies of all sizes have not only partnered together but also established cross-industry partnerships with academic and healthcare institutions.

However, in 2021, industry experts are optimistic that this focus on collaborations would shift back to traditional M&A deals. According to a report by PwC, with about USD 250B-275B in predicted M&As, 2021 will be a return to normal deal-making activity for the pharma industry. According to data from S&P Capital IQ, pharma companies are currently sitting on excess cash reserves equal to over USD 170B.

Although the pandemic has changed a lot in the industry, innovation, optimizing product portfolios, and growth remain the drivers for deal-making. It is reasonable to expect a strong return to the robust M&A activity as seen in the years prior to 2020, with excess cash reserves across the big pharmas.

As the market transitions to handling longer-term implications of the global pandemic, the challenge for pharmaceutical firms is to ensure that their workers are as adept at meeting the need for digitization and can control consumer acceptance rates. New pharma trends will be dominating the industry. With over 600 price hikes among major pharma companies taking place in the first month of 2021, mitigating challenges posed by evolving drug pricing policies and the resulting shift in public sentiments must also be taken into account.

To keep up with market fluctuations and resolve emerging threats, Netscribes provides organizations with in-depth market analysis and competitive insights into the pharmaceutical industry. Contact us for more information.

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