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Oracle and COVID as told by Larry Ellison, chairman and CTO

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy February 4, 2021
Larry Ellison explains what Oracle did to support the clinical trial and research into COVID-19 vaccine efficacy.

Larry Ellison
Larry Ellison, chairman and CTO, Oracle (via Zoom call screen grab)

I may be in a minority but whenever I get the opportunity to listen to what Larry Ellison, chairman and CTO of Oracle has to say then I jump at the chance. Why?

There's something about the way Ellison delivers a message that I find mesmeric. And so it was that, for the first time in a long time, Oracle wheeled Ellison out to talk about what Oracle has been up to during the COVID pandemic. 

It was clear very early on that he was deeply involved in Oracle's response by way of application development. His knowledge of the numbers, requirements, challenges, and outcomes demonstrated a rare mastery of a situation you don't often hear in use case descriptions. As you'd expect, that story provided the jump-off point for an Oracle pitch about its OCI and apps prowess. What did he say? Check this:

So when COVID showed up, uninvited by the way, one of the things we were able to do was quickly update our human capital management software and put in features that allowed customers to keep track of their employees who had been tested, or put in testing programs for their employees. Every feature of Fusion works on smartphones and tablets with no functional difference so working from home isn't a problem. But there are some industries where you can't work at home, like if you're assembling Tesla cars. And there are a number of things where you have to go to the office. We put in features that allowed customers to keep track of their employees who have been COVID tested. A lot of companies didn't want you to come to work if you tested positive obvious for obvious reasons. So we put in COVID testing programs and subsequently added a whole bunch of things for helping employees and employers work out how to come back to work safely. 

This is a common theme we saw quickly emerge at the start of the pandemic but it is the speed at which Oracle developed new functionality that surprises. As Ellison says, in the 'old' E-Business Suite days, release cycles ran years, now they run three monthly. But even this had to be shortened, Ellison saying that the first COVID test recording capability coming out inside 45 days. If that was all there is to the story then I'd likely say OK and move on. But then Ellison turned his attention to the needs of one of Oracle's largest customers, the US Government.

They had to develop new vaccines that we didn't have, new therapeutic drugs that we didn't have. And they had to do that in record time. They had to start testing millions of people and record the results of tests of millions of people. And we just have no systems to do that. Our health care systems are of a previous generation on-premise systems. There just was no modern healthcare system in the cloud and what the existing systems do is automate a hospital. They don't automate a country. We have tens of thousands of healthcare systems around the world. So if California wants to know how many tests they did last week for COVID-19, there's no way of knowing. The Federal Government wants to know how many tests they did last week for COVID-19. So we built it. It's called V-Safe and is an electronic health records database that keeps track of every single person in the United States, and indicates whether they've had their first shot, their second shot, or no shot at all. It keeps track of which vaccine you've been immunized with, it keeps track of any side effects you might have had. We actually engage the patient on their smartphone via a series of very short questionnaire to discover what if any side effects the patient experiences. 

Ellison explained that the reason things appeared so chaotic was that at the beginning of the pandemic, there was no single database with information the government could use to monitor the efficacy of vaccines. He was also keen to emphasize that the data is secure and that individual privacy is assured. Ellison claims that it never goes down - or at least not from the user's perspective. 

It went down once, but nobody noticed because it was failed over in a microsecond.

Ellison went on to say that while there is nothing fun about the pandemic, there have been surprises. Notably among these during the clinical trials is the case of the vaccine being administered to hospital staff who didn't know they were pregnant at the time the vaccine was delivered, Conventional wisdom is that new vaccines should not be administered to pregnant women because the effects on their unborn children is always unknown and no-one in medicine wants to take the risk of later discovering that there were serious side effects. While Ellison didn't mention it explicitly, the specter of birth defects associated with thalidomide in the 1950s and 60s still haunts the medical profession. He said:

In theory, at least, we didn't inoculate any pregnant women on the clinical trial. But some of them didn't know they were pregnant until afterwards. The good news is that so far, the results don't show any bad side effects for pregnant women. But make no mistake, this is going to get more complicated as we see which vaccines are effective against new variants. For example, we know that all the current vaccines seem effective against the British variant but not necessarily against the South African variant. This is an ongoing problem. We continue to gather efficacy data. Does it work? Yes. How long does it work for? We couldn't figure that out in the clinical trial. Will this shot last a year. Will it last five years? Will it last 10 years? We don't know that yet. But we continue to collect all that data. So policymakers, patients, can be well informed and make much better decisions about their health care.

That naturally led to the question, why Oracle? Ellison didn't skip a beat:

We're the only company that is at once a major cloud application supplier and a major cloud infrastructure supplier. And it was the combination of those two technological assets that allowed us to go ahead and build this national scale electronic health records database to keep track of everyone who's inoculated and engage each one of those patients.

My take

And there you have it. Oracle isn't alone in this type of venture, but I think that this is one of the seminal points in time where an application was needed that cannot fail because the nation's health, in part, depends on decisions made by professionals relying on what the data is telling them. Medical experts and policymakers are on the hook for framing questions in such a way that patients provide coherent answers but the speed at which this system was developed and deployed at scale is impressive. Ellison's impressive grasp of not only the past and current situation as it relates to vaccines but also the likelihood of future complexity in the analysis requirements speaks well to what should be a comprehensive roadmap on which informed decisions can be taken. 

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