AstraZeneca was recently credited with saving nearly 6.3 million lives through the Oxford/ AstraZeneca formulation vaccine (Covishield).

Typically, it would take 5-10 years to develop a medicine. However, the vaccine in partnership with Oxford was developed in just 10 months and AstraZeneca’s Chennai innovation centre had a critical role in making it possible.

Critical technology

“The competitive advantage for AstraZeneca was having an internal IT organisation here in Chennai doing the critical innovation for the vaccine,” said Cindy L. Hoots, Chief Digital Officer and CIO, AstraZeneca. The company’s Chennai centre provided the critical technology that allowed scientists and manufacturing colleagues to crunch the development of the vaccine, she told BusinessLine.

During Covid, there was reliance on data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to get real-time insights much faster than a human can process. With so much information coming in, the use of AI and ML and real-time reporting was the step change, said Hoots, who joined AstraZeneca in January 2020, a few months before the pandemic took centre stage.

“When I spoke to our Board of Directors, I said, having an insourced IT organisation was a huge competitive advantage for us. We were not in the vaccine business then and had to make sure that we produce the new medicine that we have not done before. It was the insights and the technologies from the Chennai centre that allowed that to happen,” she added.

Make in East, take to West

“Going forward, I want to make sure that the Chennai centre is driving innovation. We are using robotic process automation to automate routine work so that we take those individuals and focus them on IoT, data science capabilities apart from augmented and virtual reality that are going to be two dominant technologies in the next 10 years. We want to build our skill sets here. What we innovate in India will be for the world. Oftentimes, we use to innovate in the West and bring it to the East. What I want to do is innovate in the East and take it to the West,” she added.

Elaborating on the role that AstraZeneca India Pvt Ltd (AZIPL) unit played in the development of a Covid-19 vaccine, Siva Padmanabhan, Managing Director of the company, said, a typical vaccine development timeline is 5-6 years but the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine one was developed within a year. This posed a number of technological challenges such as ensuring the scalability of the systems used to manage every element of the value chain — from clinical trials, procurement, supply chain management and commercial operations.