Covid-19 and the role of virtual reality in healthcare and life science research

VR can enable deep training across sales, manufacturing, and distribution by simulating multiple “what-if” scenarios that might minimize leakage.

By Amit Chopra,

Our current world is amid a fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0, which encompasses the Internet of Things (IOT), additive manufacturing, digital reality, big data, artificial intelligence (ML, DL, robotics), hybrid cloud and cybersecurity. Of these areas, the ones that seamlessly integrate the cyber and physical worlds seem to be the most suitable to help navigate the challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic. We have seen digital reality emerging as a key enabler in ensuring an enhanced customer experience and business continuity amid the pandemic.

The Virtual Reality Landscape

Digital reality is a hypernym for augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), mixed reality and a gamut of other associated technologies. Virtual Reality (VR) involves using audio and video to immerse a user in the experience of an artificial environment, often in 3D and with 360 degrees of vision. This creates a fully rendered digital environment that substitutes the user’s real-world environment.

This is useful in healthcare in areas like patient management, point of care, tele-health, and home-based care. Life sciences organizations are also using VR to optimize production of very expensive products, e.g., manufacturing for chimeric antigen receptor (CAR) T-cell therapy. VR can enable deep training across sales, manufacturing, and distribution by simulating multiple “what-if” scenarios that might minimize leakage.

With the growing market of wellness and preventive health, insurers are also using virtual reality to “gamify” prevention journeys, e.g., showing users in 3D what they might look like if they followed a particular diet or incorporated certain lifestyle changes. These have led to the healthcare & life sciences virtual reality market to be projected to reach USD 8.03 billion by 2027, registering a CAGR of 16.21%.

Enter Covid-19

The pandemic brought to this existing landscape the additional complexity of being able to conduct risk-free research & production operations. Risk-free, in the time of a global pandemic, is often “contact-less.” It has become imperative for service providers to quickly adapt to the “new-normal” with digital tools that help their customers reduce physical exposure. Technologies like virtual reality can prove to be a significant differentiator in such scenarios by enabling teams to quickly evaluate a product, service or solution in a virtual, contact-less and risk-free environment.

Labatar- A virtual customer experience centre

In India, customers typically visit the Customer Experience Centers (CEC) to see first-hand our innovative capabilities in biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, food safety, forensics, analytical solutions and laboratory essentials. The CECs provide researchers, scientists, and industry practitioners access to our advanced industry leading technologies and solutions.

The pandemic severely limited these physical customer visits to the CECs, but that gap was quickly filled by the launch of Labatar — the first virtual lab in India last year. Built on virtual reality technology, it provides a platform to show the depth and scale of Thermo Fisher’s capabilities in supporting customers’ critical needs. The tool offers an immersive online experience to our customers by helping them engage virtually with our state-of-the-art technologies while performing complex research. The platform seamlessly depicts a fully equipped lab environment and walks the user through each step of a workflow, using easy-to-understand instructions that simulate the experiments performed in a physical lab.

As of now, the platform hosts two workflows, one that shows biosimilar characterization by hydrogen-deuterium exchange (HDX) reaction. This analytical technique is growing in popularity amongst pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and research organizations, especially for studying higher order protein structures for epitope mapping, screening drug candidates and in the comparison of biopharmaceutical to biosimilars.

Recently, a new workflow on Labatar, ‘Virus detection by Real time PCR method,’ showcases comprehensive solutions for COVID-19 testing using real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) method. The RT-PCR based testing method is extremely sensitive, accurate, and is considered the gold standard test for detection of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The platform also offers expediency, allowing customers to learn from industry experts while performing experiments with the click of a mouse and get a first-hand, virtual experience of handling them. The pandemic has irreversibly changed the way people interact with technology. We should support researchers and scientists across the globe who are working to develop treatments and vaccines for COVID-19. Now, more than ever, we remain steadfast in our mission to enable our customers to make the world healthier, cleaner, and safer.

(The author is Managing Director, India and South Asia, Thermo Fisher Scientific. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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