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AWS expands big pharma partnerships in manufacturing, AI, and R&D

Amazon Web Services (AMZN) is one of the largest cloud providers in the world, and in healthcare, it is looking to expand its relationships with big pharmaceutical companies Pfizer (PFE) and Amgen (AMGN) for greater use of cloud computing in drug discovery and manufacturing.

The company discussed both during the Amazon Web Services (AWS) re:Invent event in Las Vegas this week, at which AWS CEO Adam Selipsky lead a keynote address along with Pfizer EVP Lidia Fonseca to reveal the details of the partnership.

Fonseca said Pfizer began to organize its digital infrastructure in 2019, putting together data from multiple labs and instruments, but its partnership with AWS, which began amid the COVID-19 pandemic, unlocked its potential.

"We could not have been able to achieve this tremendous reach without our close relationship with AWS," said Fonseca, who is the company's chief digital and technology officer.

AWS made its mark in healthcare during the pandemic by offering expanded cloud services to what would become the two leading vaccine manufacturers — Moderna (MRNA) and Pfizer/BioNTech (BNTX) — in different ways.

Pfizer needed to scale up and more efficiently run its manufacturing of the vaccines to meet unprecedented demand. But the relationship with AWS is even bigger than that, Fonseca said.

She joined Selipsky's keynote at re:Invent to detail how Pfizer went from 10% to 80% cloud use for its manufacturing, and plans to continue its reliance on cloud use for its cancer pipeline.

When Pfizer first made the shift, it meant moving 12,000 applications and 8,000 servers in 42 weeks, which resulted in exiting three data centers and a reduction of 4.700 tons of carbon dioxide emissions — or the equivalent of energy used by 1,000 homes in a year, according to Fonseca.

That saved Pfizer $47 million annually, she said.

AWS also provided additional aid during the pandemic. It opened up more capacity in the cloud so that Pfizer could figure out how to manufacture the vaccines efficiently, analyze the data, and submit data to the Federal Drug Administration in a day.

In addition, with the use of the cloud services, Pfizer was able to more efficiently run its manufacturing. The result was a 20% increase in output, or about 20,000 more vaccines per batch, Fonseca said. The company went from producing 220 million vaccines in a typical year to 4 billion in 2022.

"We hope to achieve with cancer what we were able to achieve with COVID," Fonseca said.

Pfizer also is increasingly relying on artificial intelligence to help reduce the time it takes to complete certain tasks.

"AI also creates first drafts of patent applications and scientific content that colleagues can review and finalize, saving us time," Fonseca said at the event.

Meanwhile, Moderna's rapid R&D timeline — it was initially ahead of Pfizer in early 2020 — was made possible by using AWS cloud services to help develop a vaccine and manufacture it quickly to begin clinical trials.

"Moderna was able to complete the sequence for its mRNA COVID-19 vaccine in just 2 days using machine learning built on AWS. The first clinical batch was released just 25 days later," AWS said in a post in 2021.

IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR AMAZON WEB SERVICES - Attendees pass a display at AWS re:Invent 2021, a conference hosted by Amazon Web Services (AWS), on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, at The Venetian in Las Vegas. (Noah Berger/Amazon Web Services via AP Images)
Attendees pass a display at AWS re:Invent 2021, a conference hosted by Amazon Web Services, on Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, at The Venetian in Las Vegas. (Noah Berger/Amazon Web Services via AP Images) (Amazon Web Services)

Amgen and robot delivery

AWS is focused on further integrating AI in healthcare with partners like Pfizer, as well as other big pharma companies, including Gilead (GILD) and Johnson & Johnson (JNJ).

That's according to Matt Wood, AWS vice president of technology, who spoke exclusively with Yahoo Finance about an expansion announced with partner Amgen (AMGN) at re:Invent.

Amgen has partnered with AWS for 10 years and is now expanding to include a new Amazon robotic assembly and final product packaging facility that will open next year near Columbus, Ohio. The goal is to rely on AI to help reduce downtime and find ways to increase capacity.

"Healthcare and life sciences customers are some of the most innovative that we have," Wood said, noting that the industries have worked with AI for years before the launch of ChatGPT made it a trend.

But it has always been a "precise point solution" like optimizing operating rooms or clinical trials, or with early work on precision medicine, Wood said.

Now, with generative AI, it means there is less technical skill required to operate data systems that scientists need to help with their work and analyses, he said.

Wood said AWS is poised to play a significant role since its services and platforms are not proprietary like other big tech companies' cloud and AI services.

"We don't believe there's going to be one model to rule them all. We suspect that there's going to be sweet spots for all of these different models," Wood said.

He noted that life sciences are moving faster than average when it comes to regulated industries, which include those in the financial and insurance sectors.

"Sometimes, these organizations in these industries maybe don't have the best reputation for operating in the vanguard of new technology, to be kind," Wood said.

In life sciences, not only have the companies been slowly and steadily putting all the necessary data into databases in the type of format that can be used with AI, but they've also got a regulatory body that is supportive.

"The FDA has been pretty forward-thinking in this respect. I know that they're supportive of a lot of this, so that's helpful," Wood said.

In a recent interview with Yahoo Finance, FDA Commissioner Robert Califf said that the agency has a good support system for AI but, like other stakeholders, is struggling to regulate the new frontier of generative AI.

Anjalee Khemlani is the senior health reporter at Yahoo Finance, covering all things pharma, insurance, care services, digital health, PBMs, and health policy and politics. Follow Anjalee on all social media platforms @AnjKhem.

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