Typically, automated systems or robots are thought of as machinery used for packaging and inspection practices. But in fact, modern society is increasingly embracing these technologies and they are now helping to advance life-changing processes, such as scientific research and drug discovery. Not only is automation continuing to be adopted by big pharma organisations, but it is also growing in popularity among smaller companies, including start-ups. Much of this shift is due to the outbreak of COVID-19.
Humans could not compete against COVID-19 alone
Suddenly, without warning, in January 2020 WHO published their first Disease Outbreak News on a virus that had originated from Wuhan in China. A few days later, the genetic sequence of COVID-19 was shared publicly. News of a human pandemic breakout spread quickly across the globe, with millions of people now worried about their health and the safety of loved ones.
At the same time, clinicians and researchers were faced with the daunting questions of how to best deal with this unprecedented crisis, and how laboratories were going to cope with the huge demand of research that was going to be needed to fight this virus. Facilities that had been accustomed to processing a few handfuls of samples per day were now faced with the prospect of having to analyse thousands of tests in order to play their part in fighting COVID-19.
Early on during the pandemic, little was known about coronavirus, particularly relating to its transmission and exposure risk. Moreover, there were simply not enough trained staff to conduct the necessary testing and screening procedures. Around March in 2020, testing for COVID-19 was taking up to a week and manufacturers were struggling to produce, package and ship enough test kits to meet the growing demand. It was becoming clear that slowing the virus was not going to be solely due to medical advances, but would require the pharma industry embracing new technologies too.
Utilising robots to fight COVID-19
Many healthcare systems quickly started to utilise robots and automated systems to allow themselves to scale up accordingly and address the world’s needs. The University of California at Berkley was one of the first facilities to use robots to help with COVID-19 testing. As a result, the laboratory was able to churn out diagnoses within 24 hours by using industrial drones, similar to the ones used to manufacture cars. Every step was automated – lifting test tubes, dosing of chemicals, placing samples into neat rows and identifying plates via barcodes. Robotics massively improved the protocols, with an average of 14,000 tests able to be run each week, totalling more than 200,000 tests throughout the year.
Another example of a robot helping to fight the pandemic is Mitra, developed by an Indian start-up called Invento Robotics. This 5-foot human-like robot was guided by facial recognition technology and had a tablet mounted to its chest to allow patients to see their loved ones remotely. The machine was originally meant for care homes but was adapted during the pandemic to reduce the risk of infection to doctors. It was capable of taking vital readings and assisting in consultations. However, India still only has about three of these robots per 10,000 workers and each Mitra costs around £10,000.
Nevertheless, similar technologies are being adopted in other settings in a variety of contexts, one of which is cleaning and disinfecting. A robot that was initially funded for shipboard firefighting and maintenance tasks by the Office of Naval Research was redesigned to help fight COVID-19. The robot had four wheels and a mechanical arm that used short-wave UV light to decontaminate surfaces. It was successfully demonstrated to disinfect a room of coronavirus while being operated from a different building.
The rapid testing of COVID-19 vaccines was essential for ensuring that populations would be able to achieve immunity. Robots were found to be ideal for coronavirus vaccine studies, as they enabled tasks to be carried out accurately while ensuring that laboratory technicians were not exposed to risk. In Thailand, an AI-Immunizer system was developed by the Faculty of Engineering at Mahidol University and the Institute of Molecular Biosciences. The machine consisted of human-like arms that allowed it to perform handling and picking tasks, such as mixing samples of COVID-19 with antibodies before AI analysis.
Image credit: ABB, 2020
Replacing humans isn’t always a bad thing
COVID-19 has caused a significant growth in the adoption of automation within pharma organisations. The pandemic has shown that substituting humans with robots should not always be a concern, but instead, can sometimes save lives. Automation helped to reduce the infection risk of many medical professionals, by enabling remote working and helping to streamline crucial research workflows in laboratories. Moreover, robots were used to monitor patients, sanitise hospitals and make deliveries. Of course these technologies will never replace human interaction, but in a time of need, they helped to drive medical practices and make people around the world feel more connected.
For more information about how other forms of digitization are helping biopharma companies improve the way they collect, analyse and store data for R&D, check out the Digital Transformation in Biopharma report. It includes perspectives from organizations who are currently on their digital journey and provides insight into some of the key challenges they have faced. Download it here:
Image credit: Proclinical