Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

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November 09, 2023 | Tom Ballard

A COVID revisit for the life sciences

Two Nashvillians share their work on COVID-19 matters during LSTCON.

Attendees at Wednesday’s LSTCON, the annual conference of Life Science Tennessee, were taken back to March 2020 during two different sessions that spotlighted the sector’s prominent role in resolving the greatest public health crisis of modern times.

What occurred more than three and one-half years ago? It was the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic which caused great disruption to the lives of every person on earth.

In the first of the two sessions, Rick Ewing, Director of Customer Success for Oracle, explained how his company helped Pfizer expedite the development and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of its coronavirus vaccination. Yes, that’s the company known for its database technology.

The second session featured Dr. Alex Jahangir, a Vanderbilt University Medical Center Trauma Surgeon who found himself leading the Metro Nashville Board of Health when the pandemic hit. That resulted in Jahangir called on to lead the city’s COVID-19 Task Force through clearly uncharted waters.

Oracle draws on two decades of work.

“It was all about how many weeks, days and hours that we could shrink the process of developing the vaccination,” Ewing said, explaining that unknown to many, Oracle had been working on healthcare for two decades.

He described a call that he received from a Pfizer executive who describe the pharmaceutical company’s challenge: collapse a many-year process into nine months to deliver an FDA-approved drug by Christmas. Called the v-safeSM after vaccine health checker and described in this article, the third version that Oracle started developing in 2013 “allowed Pfizer to make critical decisions faster,” Ewing said. He added that this occurred before machine learning and artificial intelligence were driving so much of what is occurring today.

Pfizer put 45,000 people through a clinical trial before the vaccine was first injected in his grandmother’s arm in January 2021 and the rest of his family in April.

The leader of Metro’s COVID-19 response.

Jahangir discussed his experience as the task force leader in a fireside chat with Abby Trotter, Life Science Tennessee’s longtime Executive Director.

“I was brought in to be the trauma surgeon to the response,” he told attendees, explaining that the first Nashville area case was confirmed on March 7, 2020, just two days before a new leader was scheduled to assume the role of Director of the Metro Nashville/Davidson County Health Department.

That weekend, Jahangir got a call from Metro Mayor John Cooper asking him to appear at a press conference on that Monday (March 9) and assure the public that everything would be okay.

How did he navigate the turbulence?

His answer was what drives so many leaders and entrepreneurs. It was following his North Star which had three drivers:

  • Lead with science;
  • Be honest with the public; and
  • Do what was best for Nashville.

The Vanderbilt University Press has published a book on Jahangir experience titled Hot Spot: A Doctor’s Diary from the Pandemic.

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