Photo: Coronavirus vaccines are an example of successful innovation and collaboration. Credit: Kkolosov / Pixabay

By Patricia Tejeiro

Diseases such as polio and smallpox are a thing of the past thanks to intensive vaccination campaigns around the world. Today, the world is going through a similar process to try to eradicate COVID-19 and return to pre-pandemic normality. Developing several vaccines in the space of a year has been a breakthrough for medical science. Until now, the fastest recorded time for the development of a vaccine was four years, according to the Spanish Association of Vaccinology.

This success has been made possible through a combination of factors that have enabled a major boost in the science of vaccine design. One major development, which paves the way for the accelerated creation of new vaccines in the future, is that they work through messenger RNA. Until now, vaccines have been made from a series of antibodies derived from dead or inactivate micro-organisms of the targeted disease or virus.

All of this changes with messenger RNA. With this approach, the vaccine instructs certain cells to generate the necessary protein for the virus to enter the body. When it is detected, the person's immune system produces the necessary antibodies. In other words, the vaccines don't contain the virus, but a kind of lure for the system to detect and fight it.

Collaboration with ‘start-ups’

Innovation takes time, effort and money. Just like in other fields such as intech, the collaboration between large companies and start-ups is becoming an option for sharing knowledge and streamlining processes. “When adopting these new technologies, pharmaceutical companies that are not naturally digitally oriented are going to seek this agility and access to knowledge from outside,” says Xavier Contijoch, director of Opinno Barcelona and an expert in the pharmaceutical sector.

Such is the case with the alliance between the German giant Pfizer and the laboratory BioNTech. Their collaboration is a successful example of a strategic alliance between two companies pursuing the same goal. The lab, founded in 2008 by a pair of German scientists of Turkish origin, was developing cancer drugs based on messenger RNA and had begun testing the technique in a potential vaccine to protect against COVID-19.

However, BioNTech lacked the capacity to conduct the necessary tests and subsequently distribute the vaccine on a large scale. Pfizer, on the other hand, had the means, but not the technology. Moreover, the two companies had collaborated previously in the development of an influenza vaccine using the same messenger RNA approach and were able to negotiate quickly. As a result of this collaboration, both companies gained something they were lacking; Pfizer, the know-how and innovation of the laboratory; BioNTech, the means and the distribution and negotiation capacity of a large multinational.

Photo: New vaccines open the door to faster and more targeted developments in the future. Credit: Artem Podrez / Pixabay

Public funding support and looking to the future

A campaign that has a strong impact on the public and which must demonstrate both efficacy and safety cannot succeed by itself without the involvement of the public authorities. In this regard, almost all companies that are developing vaccines rely on significant public funding contributions.

In addition, due to the agility required to develop vaccines, the development of a favourable regulatory framework for research and the promotion of digitalisation in healthcare has been promoted.  As Contijoch explains: “Now there is a lot of R&D and research to be conducted in digital health, but if there is no clear regulatory framework, companies will not invest.”

One example is the Digital Delivery Act passed by the German Parliament. This legislation opens the door for mobile health apps to be added to the country's catalogue of health benefits and to be reimbursed or subsidised by insurance companies and the national health system.

In this way, the country offers a more attractive market for digital health companies and start-ups to focus their business strategy on. This model is one that should be replicated in other countries if they want to attract talent and innovation. According to Opinno's expert: “In Germany, there has been a very clear commitment to promoting the regulation and reimbursement of digital therapies. This has led many start-ups to focus their go-to market in this country. In this sense, the government needs to make a commitment to invest and attract research talent to Spain”.

Using artificial intelligence to develop medicine

One of the pharmaceutical industry's digitalisation priorities is to implement artificial intelligence (AI) processes in drug development. Thanks to the analysis of large databases and machine learning, AI can speed up the research process. “The use of artificial intelligence has been able to speed up the process of analysing historical data used to evaluate the most suitable molecules for drug development,” says Contijoch.

Digitalisation has also played a role beyond the design of new medicines. Its implementation has facilitated monitoring of patients participating in clinical trials. “There are digitalisation mechanisms that are applied to these trials to facilitate patient follow-up and in some way reduce work cycles in clinical studies,” adds Contijoch.

Ever since Edward Jenner tested the first vaccine in 1796, the goal of immunologists has remained the same: to save lives. Technology and innovation have always helped guide the way, and now they can help overcome the greatest public health crisis in recent history.