AI has been on the more important new technologies during the Covid-19 pandemic as it's used to make drug discovery far quicker

Healthcare technology

Primary care is relying less on face-to-face interactions due to advances in technology (Credit: Unsplash/US National Cancer Institute)

From the use of artificial intelligence in drug discovery to wearables monitoring patients’ vital signs, the healthcare industry has been undergoing a period of digital transformation in recent years. But as the coronavirus pandemic requires social distancing and a rapid search for a vaccine, it could finally be the trigger that forces a traditionally risk-averse industry beholden to legacy systems, regulation and compliance to fully embrace new technology.

That’s according to a healthcare analyst, who also warns that old IT infrastructure is being put to the test by this move.

Urte Jakimaviciute, senior director of market research at analytics company GlobalData, said: “Even though emerging technologies such as telemedicine have existed for decades, most healthcare systems heavily rely on in-person interactions between patients and clinicians to carry out consultations, monitoring and health-related checks.

“Nevertheless, the requirement of social distancing is swiftly pushing primary care provision towards remote options.

“Aside from video calls, these services include text, email and utilisation of purpose-built mobile apps.

“The rapid implementation of these technologies into the clinical setting showcases how quickly the sector can move towards digitalisation if there is a co-ordinated and consistent approach.”


Use of AI being ramped up to find Covid-19 treatment

With pharma companies across the world racing to be the first to find a Covid-19 vaccine, AI is playing a key role in accelerating the R&D timeline.

Fellow GlobalData analyst Kathryn Whitney, director of thematic analysis, believes coronavirus may be a tipping point in companies adopting AI-facilitated drug development.

UK start-up BenevolentAI has used an AI-based drug discovery platform to identify drugs that could disrupt certain viral entry pathways of Covid-19 – whittling down more than 370 candidates to six that showed the most promise in a three-day process.

One of these include US pharma giant Eli Lilly’s baricitinib, which is sold in 65 countries as Olumiant to treat rheumatoid arthritis but has also proven capable of inhibiting the cytokine storm associated with Covid-19 lung tissue damage and acute respiratory distress.

BenevolentAI’s findings, published in February, showed how the drug would be used before a patient develops significant lung damage as it could act as both an anti-viral and anti-inflammatory.

In early April, Eli Lilly announced it had signed an agreement with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAD) to study baricitinib in a Phase III trial, which is expected to return results next month.

Oxford-based Exscientia, meanwhile, is collaborating with the UK’s national synchrotron science centre Diamond Light Source and the California Institute for Biomedical Research (Calibr) to use AI for screening almost every approved and investigational drug to identify molecules that could become viable treatments for Covid-19.

The research will use Calibr’s collection of 15,000 clinically-ready compounds, including both drugs already on the market that are shown to be safe in humans and pre-clinical candidates.

Exscientia, which can rapidly screen the compounds against three viral drug targets, expects the first findings of its research to be available shortly, with full findings within six to eight weeks.

Whitney said: “The entire process of developing a drug from pre-clinical research to marketing can take 12 to 18 years and often costs between $2bn and $3bn, with only about 10% of candidates successfully completing clinical trials and gaining regulatory approval.

“The use of AI has the potential to rapidly accelerate the R&D timeline, making drug development cheaper and faster, and while some companies have started to invest in the technology, most are still in the watching phase.”


How coronavirus is putting a strain on IT infrastructure during digital transformation of healthcare

While the uptake of remote patient monitoring, virtual medicine and AI surges, more demand is placed on healthcare IT systems – with gaps in infrastructure, workforce and digital education being revealed by the greater use of technology.

For example, Jakimaviciute believes telemedicine and virtual care will prompt a greater uptake of tech such as wearables and digital therapeutics, but any datasets obtained from them require adequate processing and secure storage solutions.

“Therefore, investing in a digitally trained workforce and technologies such as cyber security, cloud computing, blockchain, big data and artificial intelligence becomes a must,” she said.

“The ability to invest, and align, infrastructure and resources will play a pivotal role in facilitating the speed and extent of digital transformation in the healthcare landscape.”

Pre-coronavirus, many healthcare systems around the world had already experienced increased costs and capacity pressures, while at the same time have had to deal with greater numbers of patients due to ageing populations and the rise of chronic diseases.

Dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak on top of this is stretching the healthcare services to a breaking point.

Jakimaviciute added: “An imperative to operate with constrained resources and budgets, especially for public-funded healthcare systems, is an ongoing challenge for many healthcare service providers around the world.

“Due to limited funding available, updating ageing infrastructure and legacy technologies was outside their priority lists. Nevertheless, Covid-19 presents quite a different scenario.

“Healthcare systems are forced to digitalise to be able to provide the services that otherwise would be interrupted because of the outbreak.

“While patients and clinicians are adapting to the ‘new normal’ presented by this enforced technological uptake, the hope is that once the Covid-19 crisis is gone, the digital transformation continues.

“Even though it is an expense, in the long run digital transformation can provide significant cost savings, improved agility and process efficiency that healthcare services need.”