Cognizant poised to apply Covid lessons to life-sciences manufacturing

Exponential progress in drug delivery to follow pandemic, says Cognizant chief Joe Haugh

“Never waste a good crisis,” declared Winston Churchill and the international life-sciences and pharma sector has certainly taken the British wartime leader at his word, availing of the opportunity or rather the need – to develop Covid vaccines quickly and adopt new technologies to revolutionise medicines production.

Just this week, Germany’s BioNTech announced plans to return nearly €2 billion to shareholders through share buybacks and a special dividend following the commercial success of its Covid-19 vaccine, developed in partnership with Pfizer.

The company reported € 18.9 billion in revenue last year, compared with €482.3 million in 2020 – a result that reflected the phenomenal success of the Covid-19 vaccine in 2021. Full-year net profit was €10.2 billion, compared with just €15.2 million in 2020.

Recent figures from the Central Statistics Office show how trade in the pharma sector here has boomed. The exports of chemicals and related products accounted for €106 billion or 65 per cent of our total last year.


Within this, medical and pharma products accounted for €62 billion or 38 per cent of the total while exports of organic chemicals, which incorporates a lot of the raw material that go into making pharma products, accounted for €31 billion or 19 per cent.

Exponential change

The Republic is a global hub for pharma and medtech sector.

Joe Haugh, head of the Cognizant Life Sciences Manufacturing business, believes the strides made by the sector in the past two years to develop Covid 19 vaccines, building upon new technologies utilising the cloud, will exponentially change how medicines are developed, produced and distributed into the future.

“If you look at the speed at which Covid vaccines were approved– drug approval can often take up to 12 years – it was lightning speed how fast they got approval even considering the head start with similar Sars vaccines some years back,” says Haugh, who was chief executive of Cork-based Zenith Technologies prior to its acquisition by Cognizant in 2019.

“And getting it approved is one thing but getting it manufactured and distributed is another challenge– from getting all of the raw materials and the supply chains working even when a lot of the world was working from home, the sector rose to meet that challenge swiftly and successfully.

How are they doing it?

“They’re doing it via cloud, Industry 4.0, the fourth industrial revolution,” he says. “This global pandemic nearly forced pharma companies to use the newer technologies and you could see the speed at which everything happened, once that adoption of technology took hold.”

A native of Limerick with a BSc in applied physics, Haugh has more than 30 years of experience leading the delivery of automation, manufacturing execution systems and digital manufacturing.

He worked for a decade as a process controls and automation engineer with GSK progressing to project manager to lead large capital projects. He then joined Wyeth Bio Pharma Team where he helped oversee the construction, commissioning and validation of its biotech facility at Grange Castle.

Joining Zenith as director of site services, he progressed within the Cork- headquartered company, becoming successively director of European operations, director of new product introduction and R&D, and deputy chief executive before becoming chief executive in 2015.

It’s a career path that ensures Haugh is well positioned to observe and comment on the most recent changes within the life-sciences and pharma sector as it sought to respond to the Covid pandemic.

The Cognizant Life Sciences Manufacturing business operates out of 16 global locations, in proximity to all the major life-sciences manufacturing centres.

“Cognizant, which has 300,000 employees worldwide, began 28 years ago as an IT professional services company. The company has various divisions including a life-science division where they work with the world’s leading companies across their value chain, from R&D and commercial to distribution and supply chain,” he says.

“The strategic acquisition of Zenith’s manufacturing capabilities was a key component to round out Cognizant’s life-sciences business, allowing Cognizant to touch every aspect of a pharma company’s engineering and IT needs.

“While we didn’t have a huge level of direct involvement in the manufacture of drugs for Covid 19 in that these drugs weren’t being made on the sites that we support, Cognizant did help clients in R&D and at the supply chain level, which of course was vital to getting the drugs out to people.”

Haugh sees Cognizant as being at the forefront of digital development, which he believes will drive change in the life-science sector exponentially as companies seek to capitalise on cloud technology to develop more effective medicines.

“I’m loath to say it’s been an advancement to the industry because the Covid pandemic has obviously taken such a toll in terms of deaths and sickness but the life-sciences sector, which, by its nature, is conservative, has learned so much during the past two years.

“The sector was driven to this in effect as governments sought to speed up solutions– it has accelerated the use of new technologies and has been a major catalyst to the development and future supply of drugs.”

Wearable technology

Pulling back, to focus on the future of health and the life-sciences sector generally, Haugh believes technology, and in particular, wearable technology is going to revolutionise the treatment of specific conditions with health professionals being able to prescribe tailor-made treatments.

“Patient drug monitoring is critical to treatment and I think one of the biggest things that is going to change the industry is wearable technology where you can measure the patient’s response and see how effective certain treatments are.

“For example, if somebody has diabetes and they are taking a type of diabetes treatment – your wearable device and associated apps can measure in real time the impact of the treatment and send the data for that particular patient to the cloud, creating a clear model of how the treatment is affecting insulin levels in the blood.”

“Instead of needing to check in with a diabetic consultant regularly, the wearable app will track when the patient is taking the drug and its immediate impact, offering real-time data on whether the drug is working or not.”

The new technology will allow GPs to track whether a drug is effective or not, which will have far-reaching impacts as it means that governments and insurance companies will be able to see just how effective certain drugs are in treating individual patients.

“That will have a big knock-on effect on the drug companies because reimbursement from governments and insurance companies are based on the efficacy of drugs. This could mean that personalised sensors and the patient are going to be at the centre of the drug market in the future.

Haugh believes that companies like Cognizant, which, in addition to Zenith, acquired Waterford data intelligence firm TQS Integration in 2021, are going to play an even more important role as technology and cyber companies move more centre stage in drug manufacturing.

“The first industrial revolution brought us the steam engine and the second brought us electricity but now we are in the fourth. I don’t think people realise the extent that things could change for us in the next five years.

“If you go back 15 years, digital, robotisation, cloud and cyber expertise didn’t play a huge role in the life sciences and pharma sector. Now pharma companies with these skills can potentially have significant impacts on global health care provision and could become technology-based companies.

“The ability of companies to obtain patient-specific information on the efficacy of drugs in real time and send it to the cloud is going to lead to the development and personalisation of drugs that will need to be produced in smaller, more flexible manufacturing facilities.

“There are still going to be large manufacturing sites because there will still be the need for bulk drugs but I believe generally the trends are going to be towards more flexible manufacturing and targeted drugs that could achieve better outcomes for patients.”