How Gen AI Is Helping Pfizer Change Healthcare Narrative

CDTO Lidia Fonseca on Digital Transformation, Cloud Migration and AI Integration
How Gen AI Is Helping Pfizer Change Healthcare Narrative
Lidia Fonseca, chief digital and technology officer at Pfizer

With a legacy of over 170 years, Pfizer is one of the few pharmaceutical companies that has remained unwavering in its commitment to innovation. Headquartered in New York, Pfizer has established itself as a pioneering healthcare company, treating 1.3 billion patients, or one in every six individuals worldwide. Lidia Fonseca, the company's chief digital and technology officer, leads from the front when it comes to embracing cutting-edge technologies, particularly artificial intelligence or AI. Whether it is optimizing operational efficiency, expediting new drug discovery, or elevating the healthcare experience, Fonseca steers the company to stay ahead of the curve.

"Innovation is at the core of Pfizer's DNA; it's in our legacy and our commitment to transforming healthcare globally," she said during an interaction with global technology leaders at the recently concluded AWS re:Invent 2023. "Leveraging technology is not just about staying ahead; it's about reimagining how we can serve humanity."

Pfizer has embraced AI beyond the conventional approaches, resulting in not only faster drug development but also unparalleled operational efficiency and productivity impact.

At AWS re:Invent 2023, Fonseca delved into ongoing generative AI initiatives at Pfizer, and discussed some of the company's most innovative and collaborative achievements in recent times.

Generative AI for Operational Efficiency

Pfizer is harnessing the potential of generative AI to drive innovation and productivity in as many as 17 use cases, ranging from scientific and medical content generation to manufacturing. With the use of Amazon Bedrock and its AI/ML ecosystem, the company estimates that some of the early use cases will help cut costs from $750 million to $1 billion annually.

One such use case is identifying new oncology targets. AI has the capability to efficiently identify and collate contextual data from more sources in lesser time - a process that is currently done manually. "AI algorithms can assess trends to generate potential targets and help in quicker validation to improve the probability of success," Fonseca said.

Using AWS, Pfizer has deployed VOX, its proprietary generative AI platform that allows workers to securely innovate with the available large language models. The company is also using gen AI to create the first drafts of patent applications and generate medical and scientific content for human review and finalization. This approach has reduced time to market.

Vaccine Development Through Cloud Innovation

Amid the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the primary focus for pharmaceutical companies was expediting the vaccine-to-market process. Typically, the journey from drug discovery through various stages of trials to regulatory approval takes up to 10 years. However, Pfizer and its partner BioNTech launched the BNT162 COVID-19 vaccine in about six months, a notable achievement attributed to the accessibility of a robust cloud infrastructure and advance data analysis. Prior to the pandemic, Pfizer's total vaccine production capacity was limited to 220 million vaccine doses across its entire portfolio. In 2022 alone, the company scaled up to 4 billion doses of COMIRNATY.

Pfizer worked with technology providers, including AWS, to rapidly provision additional high-performance computing capacity to scale into tens of thousands of additional cores in the cloud. Those additional CPUs offered the ability to rapidly analyze the data and understand the manufacturing process of its vaccine candidate. As a next step to manufacture and distribute the vaccine as quickly as possible, Pfizer created the industry's first Digital Operations Center that facilitated seamless collaboration across manufacturing plants, provided visibility into production status, and resolved issues in real time. "It resulted in a 20% throughput increase for us. As a result, an mRNA prediction algorithm yielded 20,000 more vaccine doses per batch," Fonseca said.

Power of AI in Redefining Healthcare Norms

Relying on success rates from experiments held earlier, the company is now aiming to launch as many as 19 medicines and vaccines in the next 18 months - an unprecedented target for any healthcare company. "It's an incredibly ambitious goal but not impossible as 13 launches have already been done. Digital, data and AI are at the core of the success," Fonseca said.

For digital technologies such as AI to succeed at scale, having a disciplined data strategy is a prerequisite. Centralizing all data sources, creating standards and platforms to scale globally, cultivating skills and talent, and securing a foundation for maximum impact is paramount.

"In 2021, we undertook a massive initiative to migrate majority of our core IT into the cloud. It meant migration of 12,000 applications and databases, and 8,000 servers in just 42 weeks. It wasn't an easy migration. However, it eventually saved us $47 million annually," Fonseca said. "We closed down three of our data centers which reduced 4,700 tons of CO2 emissions."

With the help of cloud migration, Pfizer is able to reduce the time required to set up CPUs for more compute power. It can set up 60,000 CPUs in just one hour, which increases the speed of data generation for large drug submissions by 75%.

In 2019, along with AWS, Pfizer developed a Scientific Data Cloud or SDC that aggregates data from hundreds of laboratory instruments. The platform simplifies the effort involved in processing, storing, retrieving, reusing and analyzing scientific data generated by laboratory and manufacturing equipment. Its open data lake architecture allows for the platform to scale dynamically as data volumes increase. The SDC has also enabled scientists to conduct easy, customized searches of all historical molecule and compound data in real time as against weeks or months earlier.

"As we strive for more breakthroughs, we need to responsibly harness the power of AI," Fonseca said.

Pfizer's future mission is to merge technology and humanity. The fusion of AI capabilities with Pfizer's rich heritage has not only accelerated drug discovery but has also propelled the company into uncharted territories, offering solutions that redefine the norms of healthcare.

About the Author

Rahul Neel Mani

Rahul Neel Mani

Founding Director of Grey Head Media and Vice President of Community Engagement and Editorial, ISMG

Neel Mani is responsible for building and nurturing communities in both technology and security domains for various ISMG brands. He has more than 25 years of experience in B2B technology and telecom journalism and has worked in various leadership editorial roles in the past, including incubating and successfully running Grey Head Media for 11 years. Prior to starting Grey Head Media, he worked with 9.9 Media, IDG India and Indian Express.

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