AI and the Disruption of Big Pharma

Right now there is a lot of focus on Big Pharma for obvious reasons, so it was with interest that I read an article in Forbes by Alex Zhavoronkov about the pharmaceutical industry’s rather slow approach to using artificial intelligence (AI) when it is already very much a facet of less life-and-death services, such as Netflix movie suggestions.

Significantly, Zhavoronkov says, “Experts suggest that the pharmaceutical industry remains one of the most inefficient industries, a last holdout against technological disruption.” It’s curious is it not, that a sector that is all about scientific advancement should be so behind the times?

According to the article, “the efficiency of the industry has been on the decline since the 1950s. Just as an example, it now costs over $2.6 Billion to bring a drug — or a New Molecular Entity (NME) — to the market.” It’s a high cost, and then there are the costs related to the failed drug trials to factor in as well. Eventually, you and I pay for it all.

But AI has potential to perform a role in small molecule drug discovery, and we need to understand its potential and its limitations, especially in relation to the way that the pharma giants have traditionally gone about finding new drugs.

Zhavoronkov comments: “The process of small molecule drug discovery includes several steps: the scientists form a disease hypothesis, identify a target, design a molecule and then conduct pre-clinical studies takes on average five years and may cost hundreds of millions of dollars.” Then it takes another five years of clinical development and testing phases, which mean more expenditure.

AI might look like the perfect solution to reduce costs, and with all the Big Data available, surely it can help pinpoint marketable drugs. But, Zhavoronkov says:“Despite the many advances in technology that have led to major disruptions including mobile and personal computing, the Internet, and genome sequencing, the cost to develop a drug is steadily increasing.”

The pharma sector apparently remains sceptical about its uses: “they prefer to incrementally develop internal capabilities across the entire spectrum of the drug discovery process instead of making big bets on specific enabling technologies.”

Zhavoronkov remains optimistic about the future of AI in pharmaceuticals, and identifies the key to its success as “a massive integration of the systems used to identify biological targets, systems that help design novel molecules, and systems that personalize the treatments, and predict the clinical trials outcomes.” As he concluded that “The recent COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the impotence of today’s traditional and AI-powered approaches, as seen when attempts to repurpose other drugs to treat Covid-19 did not really produce any promising candidates, and a “lot more work needs to be done in AI and laboratory automation to significantly accelerate drug discovery.”

The 5G Conspiracy Theorists Making Money Out of Covid-19!

If you have been following social media during this pandemic, and it’s hard to avoid it, you may have noticed that conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus are multiplying like weeds.

The general consensus is that it leapt to humans from a bat, or a pangolin, but even the leading scientists have questioned what was initially assumed about Wuhan’s wet market as being the source.

But the conspiracy theorists aren’t content with that. It’s not exciting enough for them presumably, plus was there ever a better opportunity for them to jump on all the social media channels and announce the ‘truth’!

One of the most prevalent theories is that the virus is related to the rollout of 5G Internet technology. Apparently, while we are all in lockdown, new 5G towers are being installed while we’re not looking. That’s just one aspect of it. The other is that the 5G technology is responsible for spreading the virus worldwide?

How could technology do this? Well, according to the conspiracy, there is no virus. The images you have seen of people dying in hospital beds is part of one big hoax. Instead it is 5G technology that is causing the symptoms.

Another variation of the conspiracy theory asserts that radiation from 5G can weaken your immune system to the point that you are more easily infected by COVID-19. After all, the same people have been saying for months that 5G will basically fry your brain.

It’s hard to imagine, is it not, that all the medics, nurses and scientists have been colluding in an elaborate illusion, just to ensure that we think people are ill or dying from the virus?

The conspiracy theorists work from the rather basic principle that since Covid-19 started in China, and so did the 5G rollout, which apparently means 5G is the real source of the worst pandemic any of us have seen. Some have even tried to create timelines connecting the emergence of radio waves in 1916 as the precursor of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, and to connect the introduction of 3G with SARS and 4G with swine flu, before we get to 5G.

Even some news broadcasters have pandered to the idea, showing maps of %G tower installations and claiming there are more Covid cases in these areas. However, this doesn’t support 5G as being the cause. There may be many other factors in those areas contributing to the number of infections, primary among them socio-economics and population density.

And in other fake news, somebody tried to claim that the new Bank of England £20 note features a 5G tower and a symbol for Covid-19. Apart form the Queen, it features the artist J.M.W. Turner. The ‘5G tower’ is actually Margate Lighthouse, a favourite place of the artist, and the so-called Covid symbol represents a staircase at Tate Britain, which houses many of Turner’s works. Just so we’ve cleared that one up.

That hasn’t stopped people from vandalising 5G towers and attacking telecoms workers in the UK and elsewhere. As Forbes contributor Bruce Y. Lee says, “In fact, these 5G-COVID-19 conspiracy theories has gotten so rampant that U.K. government officials actually have had to take time to discredit such theories, which is a wonderful use of time during a public health emergency.”

Making money from the 5G conspiracy

Of course, somebody is benefitting from the 5G conspiracy: Ryan Broderick at Buzzfeed says people are paying $350 for a USB stick that is a ‘bioshield’ against 5G. The vendor, Jacques Bauer, “falsely claims protects people from 5G radiation by converting it into beneficial radiation.” And there are others who have jumped on the same bandwagon, as Broderick rightly names and shames them.

It’s consumer abuse at any time, but while people are dying in the hundreds of thousands worldwide, it is utterly disgraceful to capitalise on people’s fear in this way. In the months to come, people will want answers about how this pandemic truly unfolded, and I’m willing to bet that the experts won’t say, “It was 5G.” However, like the anti-vaxxers (a lot of the 5G conspiracists belong in that camp as well), those who are convinced 5G caused Covid-19 will probably not go away. The best thing we can do is to ignore them.

Covid-19 figures prompt stock market surge

It appears that Monday 6th April may be remembered as the day that the global stock markets resurged and investors heaved a sigh of relief. This turnaround is due to the fact that it seems the global pandemic is peaking in the worst-hit countries, such as Spain and Italy, giving investors the green light to start buying again.

According to the New York Times European stocks were trading 2 to 4 percent higher after a modest rally in Asia picked up steam later in the day. At the time of writing the New York exchange hadn’t opened, but Futures markets are predicting it will also see a good day today.

In Japan, the Nikkei 225 index rose 4.2 percent. South Korea’s Kospi index rose 3.9 percent. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng Index was up 2.2 percent. Taiwan’s Taiex was up 1.6 percent.

However, oil prices, which usually rise when there’s good news, are not doing so well due to the continued argument between Russia and Saudi Arabia. Owing to the coronavirus epidemic, demand for oil has dropped precipitously. Saudi Arabia and OPEC proposed a deal that would trim oil production in response, but Russia declined to go along with it. So the battle continues.

A stress test for Europe

Another thing that came to light in today’s news is that European banking regulators had planned to stress test banks to see if they could withstand another major economic downturn. As it happens, they didn’t need to run any simulation, because the real thing came along in the form of the coronavirus Covid-19.

The New York Times said, “Government officials planned on running their test earlier this year, and it was meant to simulate a 4.3 percent decline in European economic output by 2022.” But now they are faced with an even worse ‘worst case’ scenario.

Some economists predict that Europe’s economy could drop by over 10% by June, and the continent’s central bankers are concerned that the crisis proofing that they put in place, won’t be sufficient to cope with what promises to be a global financial meltdown. It’s a worrying time, as European banks have never fully recovered from the last big crisis in 2008. And firms like BMW are already recording a massive drop in sales. The German carmaker announced sales had plunged by 20% in January to March 2020 and that is probably by now a conservative figure, as most countries hadn’t gone into lockdown until mid-to late March. In the UK, car dealers sold 200,000 cars fewer than they did in March 2019. It isn’t the only industry under stress, and many big companies will be looking to expand their existing lines of credit.

But, for the moment, we can take some pleasure in the fact that Covid-19 infections and deaths appear to be declining in the worst hit places, and that there is still investor enthusiasm for global stocks.

The Covid-19 Virus Has Just Reset The Global Economy!

President Trump claimed that the Covid-19 pandemic was “unforeseen”, or as Harvard’s Professor Jeffrey Frankel suggests, political leaders are seeing it as a ‘black swan’ event. That’s an event that nobody saw coming. The last one of these was the financial crash of 2008.

Perhaps countries’ responses might have been more organised had governments listened more carefully to leading epidemiologists who have been warning about the dangers of a global pandemic for decades. However, as with any event like this, hindsight is a wonderful thing. We are where we are, and we must deal with it.

There isn’t one person who cannot be aware of the effects that the coronavirus epidemic will have on the economy, because so many are already afraid of the future already due to the immediate loss of employment that came in the wake of each country’s lockdown restrictions. At the very beginning of Spain’s lockdown, unions said more than 100,000 people risked losing their jobs, and economists have warned that these temporary layoffs could become permanent. These figures refer to the big companies such as Seat, Iberia and Burger King, not the small businesses, such as bars and cafes, which have also been forced to close. And then there are the self-employed. This scenario is being replicated across Europe and in the USA.

Three scenes of impact

I believe there are three possible scenarios in relation to the economic impact:

Containment

This hasn’t happened. Economies would have had a better chance of staying stronger if we had managed to contain the infection rate to less than 500 per million. However, if you look at the average rate in the most affected countries, you are looking already at 1600 cases per million. So, it’s too late for that.

Government funding

Massive injections of emergency funding is another route. The USA is pouring an historic two trillion into the economy to shore up retail supply chains, and other countries are taking similar measures, mostly to ensure that its citizens have some income. However, there is a clear problem with this approach. Government loans will only work in the short term for businesses, for two or three months at most, and then businesses will have to let staff go. This will be fine if the economy can return to business as usual by the end of April perhaps, but if it goes on longer, there will be problems.

Herd immunity

Then there is the ‘herd immunity’ approach. The UK government suggested taking this approach when the first cases appeared, and allowing 60% of the country to become infected. They said it was what the science said, but the British people weren’t quite so keen on the idea, and it was only a matter of days before the British government stopped talking about herd immunity, and followed other countries’ actions. If a country followed the ‘herd immunity’ concept, it is likely that the crisis would continue into September/October, by which time a blanket of economic depression would have fallen over the entire world. Two-thirds of the population would be infected and the death toll would be enormous.

The economy would grind to a halt, and even a powerful economy like that of the USA wouldn’t be able to bail out businesses. The result would be a real life horror film, with social unrest, looting and crime at record heights due to unemployment. Hospitals would close their doors to all coronavirus patients, and uninfected people would fear those who were infected and violent hate acts would follow. The most vulnerable citizens, that is our elderly, would have to be moved to safe areas, while criminals would happily take advantage of the situation. Indeed, it would be like sunshine for them, as law enforcement resources would be focused on dealing with the social unrest arising from unemployment. If it sounds like one of those zombie apocalypse films that is because it is pretty close to one.

Currently we are all trying to stop the spread, but as you can see from the above scenarios, none of them guarantees us a return to the economic certainties we knew just a month ago. There will be many more predictions as the days and weeks pass: let’s hope they paint a brighter picture.

However, be warned: We are entering a new era that we might as well call ‘Global Elite Centralization’ and Covid-19 was the reset button that triggered it.