There is a terrific story by Raja Simhan in The Hindu Business Line this morning (14 September 2022) about the critical contribution of AstraZeneca’s innovation center in Chennai making it possible to develop the Covid-19 vaccine in just ten months – a process that sometimes takes as long as 5 to 10 years. By April 2022, the Serum Institute of India (SII) had produced approximately 1.8 billion doses of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine of which 1.51 billion doses had been administered in the country. Another 300 million doses of Bharat Biotech had been also been administered making up for 98.36% of the 1.84 doses administered in the country by that time. At that juncture, the demand for the vaccines in India was diminishing and SII had another 250 million doses in stock at its Pune plant with plans to switch back to its key pipeline vaccines to combat malaria, pneumonia, and HPV.
SII expects its R21/Matrix-M malaria vaccine candidate developed in collaboration with the University of Oxford, which was in its phase 3 clinical trials in Africa in April, to go into production for deliveries in 2023. Although the normal protocols would require five to six years from the start of Phase 3 trials for a new vaccine to be approved for broad use, the University of Oxford and the SII have publicly indicated their intention to pursue a fast-track timeline, with the ambition of product licensure and availability for use by end 2023/24. This is stated on the World Health Organization website where it describes the progress of the two current malaria vaccine candidates in development.
It must be kept in demand that the greatest demand for the malaria vaccines will be in sub-Sahara Africa and Asia and that the low price of this vaccine does not overly attract the major drug manufacturers. This is another compelling reason for the rapid development and production of the malaria vaccine by the Serum Institute of India.
AstraZeneca’s IT hub in Chennai
The Hindu BusinessLine story reveals the role of AstraZeneca’s IT hub in Chennai in the development of the Covid-19 vaccine. AstraZeneca began its Indian IT activity in 2014, which was significantly ramped up in 2017 with the opening of the Chennai center. The company’s Chennai center provided the critical technology that allowed scientists and manufacturing colleagues to crunch the development of the vaccine. Raj Simhan quotes Cindy L Hoots, chief digital officer and CIO, AstraZeneca, “The competitive advantage for AstraZeneca was having an internal IT organization here in Chennai doing the critical innovation for the vaccine.”
The development effort relied 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 center stage.
“When I spoke to our Board of Directors, I said, having an insourced IT organization 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 center that allowed that to happen,” she told Simhan.
Siva Padmanabhan, the managing director of AstraZeneca India, told Simhan, “A typical vaccine development timeline is 5-6 years but the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine 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.”