Bengaluru-based IT major Infosys last week launched a solution for Covid-19 vaccine management. Earlier, US-based Accenture, too, had launched a similar solution to support vaccination programmes and vaccine-distribution activities.
So, what have IT services firms to gain from the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines? Quite a bit. The world is staring at a vaccination drive for billions of people. Many countries, including India, are allocating budgets and drawing up plans to make this rollout as smooth as possible.
All these are being done on a scale never seen before and in a very short time. This presents a huge business opportunity not just for biotech firms, pharmaceuticals or logistics players but also for tech firms.
Where does the opportunity lie?
The opportunities for tech firms are in two key areas: patient management and cold chain monitoring.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
Karthikeyan Natarajan, COO of Hyderabad-based IT Services firm Cyient, has some insights on the potential. Cyient is looking to tap into opportunities in vaccine management, such as cold chain monitoring.
Natarajan explained that the job is not done just about administration of vaccines. “Say (for instance) 10 million vaccines are administered in Hyderabad or Mumbai. How do you really know that it has gone well and it has not reacted,” he asked.
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“So, it is not so much about saying that I am done with the injection; if you are a vaccine producer, you have to map the whole lifecycle,” he added.
“You need to use a lot of digital tools from a patient-management standpoint before administration, during and post,” he added.
Managing cold chains
Patient management is just one aspect. The other is managing cold chains. Pfizer’s vaccine, which has shown more than 95 percent efficacy in phase-3 trials, needs to be stored at -70 degrees Celsius. Moderna’s vaccine would need -20 degrees Celsius storage and AstraZeneca needs to be refrigerated at 2-8 degrees.
These cold-storage chains need to be managed. For instance, it would be important to monitor how soon these vaccines need to be administered and also check for spoilage. According to a Scientific American report, once Pfizer’s vaccine is transferred to a refrigerator, it has to be administered within five days. Also, during distribution, there could be chances of vaccines being spoilt. According to the report, this spoilage could be anywhere between 5-20 percent.
The Internet of things can be used to monitor the temperature and keep a check on vaccine vials “so that you know which ones got exposed to higher temperatures for a longer duration and segregate them”, he explained.
The scale at which this needs to be managed is huge and would require technological intervention, where tech services firms come into play.
Role of tech services in vaccine management
A case in point is the announcement by the Australian State of Victoria, which recently announced a tender for a Covid-19 vaccine management solution. The State said it is looking to select a private contractor who can deliver cloud-based software to manage the entire process of the vaccine rollout.
Infosys and Accenture have jumped into the fray to develop solutions.
Infosys’ vaccine management solution, developed by Simplus (which it acquired recently), and hosted on the Salesforce cloud, offers solutions for individuals and healthcare service providers. While individuals can use the platform to find solutions and schedule appointments, providers can use it to maintain inventory, log vaccine administration details and document adverse effects.
Accenture’s solution, built on the Salesforce platform, includes contract tracing and managing the supply chain. It uses analytics to allocate vaccine supply and also monitor the dosage regime.
How big an opportunity is there?
There is a lot riding for firms involved in the vaccine drive. The cost of slipups is huge and their reputation could take a massive hit, pointed out analysts, explaining why the role tech service providers play would be important. However, the opportunity is tough to quantify, as vaccine management alone would not result in substantial revenue, say analysts and executives.
Pareekh Jain, founder, Pareekh Consulting, agreed that the vaccine drive is unlikely to bring in substantial revenue for IT services firms. But, he added, it allows companies to expand their footprint into healthcare.
Jain explained that so far, IT firms; exposure to core pharmaceutical operations is small as they use their in-house team. However the sheer scale of operations amid Covid-19 can give them an entry point to move beyond legacy operations by leveraging their data analytics and AI solutions to gain a bigger market, he added.
In the wake of Covid-19, healthcare was one of the few sectors that grew for IT services firms. The last six months saw huge investments coming into pharmaceuticals, medical devices and predictive healthcare, some of which are likely to stay. This could also provide more opportunities.