Technology and the COVID-19 vaccine: Q&A with Mick Davison

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic was unleased on the UK, the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries have worked tirelessly to develop a safe and effective vaccine. New reports suggest that the speed at which these industries are working could mean a vaccine could be available within 18 months– or possibly sooner.

To gain a better grasp of the role technology could have to play in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine and how these industries will be forever changed, our Director, Al Vickers, has been picking the brains of Mick Davison, VP of Software Development at Instem.

Mick’s unparalleled knowledge of the health and life science communities along with decades of experience working in tech, made him the perfect person to talk to about this particular topic.

You can listen to the full conversation below or continue reading to find out what was discussed during this interesting and insightful session.

Hi Mick, Can you briefly tell us about yourself and your background?

I’ve worked in technology for over 20 years in various forms, from developer to architect roles to tech leadership roles, and now I’m the VP of Software Development at Instem. We’ve got 12 agile teams spread across several locations including Europe, North America and India; all of them for the health and lifecycle communities. I joined the team in 2017 and my role is to harmonise software development across the Instem group.

Have you noticed any significant changes to your industry since the COVID-19 pandemic began? Are they short-term changes to tackle the crisis or can you see them becoming the new normal? 

Everyone’s had to adapt and there has definitely been some impact across the healthcare industry. We’ve seen some organisations, who would normally take on volunteers shut down completely, whereas others have been able to maintain operations as before.

From a software point of view, we’ve been trying to assist our clients where possible to help them find a vaccine for COVID-19 as soon as possible. There’s quite a long cycle when it comes to developing these drugs. so shortening the lifecycle to develop and bring them to market has been the biggest challenge for the industry. But we’ve seen everyone working within the industry to find a solution.

Historically, it takes 12-16 years for a drug to be brought to market. There’s a lot of development that goes into it before the manufacturers get the chance to go to market. So for them to try and develop a vaccine in a much shorter time frame is a big task.

The pharma industry is currently in a mad dash to bring a Covid-19 vaccine to market. In your opinion, could software, data and applications have a bigger role to play in helping R&D teams optimise their vaccines, whilst also ensuring their safety and effectiveness? 

Not cutting corners is a big challenge when you’re trying to do something quicker. Software does have a role to play in improving safety and effectiveness, but so do new technologies too. There’s a lot of new tech that’s currently being looked at across the healthcare industry; not on a widespread scale just yet but definitely in particular areas. However, because the healthcare industry is so highly regulated, it can be a challenge to introduce new technologies such as AI, because you have to ensure the regulators are comfortable and approve of them being used.

The industry needs to become more agile in order to change and react more quickly and that not just from a software perspective. We’ve previously seen universities and pharma companies collaborate to try and improve their ways of working and speed processes up. It will be interesting to see once all of this is over how the industry will look at things and see how they can become more effective.

What do you predict will be the next big trend in your industry once we overcome the crisis? Also, what do you think will be the biggest challenge to hit your industry moving forward?

The biggest trend will be how to utilise AI. We’ve noticed a lot of noise about AI recently, particularly from a digital pathology standpoint. While not too much has gone through and come out into production, there are a lot of people who see this as an obvious area where we can introduce AI technology to assist people.

Creating vaccines does take a long time, so if we want to speed that up we need the help of technology, it can't come from humans alone. Due to the nature of what it does, the pharma and healthcare industries tend to be risk-averse. But there have definitely been changes in attitudes recently.

Remote working is another trend I can see continuing. There’s a lot of companies who might have wanted to try remote working on a broader scale previously who were nervous about the risks involved. However, the pandemic took that sense of fear away. You either stopped working or you worked from home. We would have got there eventually, but it has certainly accelerated things and brought it forward.

What advice would you give to healthcare companies who are starting to shape their post-COVID recovery?

From a looking forward perspective, improving business agility is key. The coronavirus pandemic has shown where the industry takes its time to do things, due to its regulatory approach. Whereas if they are able to improve their agility, companies have more chance of reacting more quickly and improving their processes.

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Al Vickers

3rd September