Biopharma Leaders Look to Leverage Lessons Learned from the Pandemic
Several biotech executives provided their thoughts on lessons learned from the pandemic and what they hope or expect to see moving forward in the industry.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic is still raging in parts of the world, such as India, it is fading in the U.S. and much of Europe. The biopharma industry has been at the forefront of the battle against the disease, and much of the success in fighting it has been the result of the fast development of vaccines and therapeutics.
During the earliest period of shutdowns in 2020, biopharma companies found themselves having to pause, shut down or significantly modify clinical trials because non-urgent care was limited at clinics and hospitals. This created an environment where many companies began exploring decentralized and hybrid clinical trials, where telemedicine, remote sensors, and other modalities came into play. In addition, companies found their supply chains in jeopardy.
Sandy Macrae, chief executive officer of Sangamo, said, “Pre-pandemic we made thoughtful investments in our manufacturing capabilities which insulated us from being fully dependent on how others handled the pandemic. This is an investment with long term benefit as it has potential to insulate us from future global challenges by providing great control of processes, quality, supply and timelines.”
Remote Work & Communication
Much has been made of how so many businesses shifted to a remote-work mode. This wasn’t always possible in the biopharma industry.
Linda Fitzpatrick, chief people and communications offer at Sutro Biopharma, speaking at BioSpace’s The Future of BioPharma: Laying the Groundwork for a Post-Pandemic Workplace panel, said, “I think there’s a higher level of expectation to return to work onsite because you can’t manufacture medicine in a GMP environment from your home.
"I do believe we’ll have a bit more openness to what I’m going to call a modified hybrid modell," Fitzpatrick continued. "We want to be able to provide that level of flexibility for our team while acknowledging that we’re such a collaboration-based organization, and we really, truly are best when we’re working together.”
In a related area, Larry Sanders, Berkeley vice president and site manager for Bayer, said, “I have a heightened appreciation for the value of communication. Throughout this pandemic, keeping our employees informed as guidance and regulations changed and pandemic fatigue set in has been essential.”
Sense of Mission
Biopharma, as well as healthcare, were very much at the head of the response to the pandemic. Jessica Grossman, chief executive officer of IgGenix, noted that this created a sense of public urgency.
“It is thanks in part to all those who participated in the trials that we got these vaccines as quickly as we did. I imagine for them there was a sense of doing something important, contributing positively to this public health crisis, or doing one’s civic duty. We need more of that. We need more people of every color, size, gender and ethnicity to get involved in clinical trials.”
One of the remarkable aspects of the biopharma response has been the company-to-company partnerships and public-private collaborations, such as seen with the U.S. National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (NIAID)’s support for numerous vaccine development programs, such as Moderna’s, as well as the government’s Operation Warp Speed, that helped fund and expedite development of COVID-19 vaccines.
Rick Winningham, chief executive officer of Theravance Biopharma, said, “The threat of COVID-19 motivated the industry to break down barriers between competitors, regulators, academia, patients, and government, and in the process, the focus centered on the disease not on individual constituencies; collaboration was not only needed but required. This collaboration has better served patient needs throughout the global community.”
Manufacturing Capabilities and Flexibility
There has also been an astonishing scale-up of vaccine manufacturing worldwide. For example, Ugur Sahin, chief executive officer and co-founder of BioNTech, which developed the COVID-19 mRNA with Pfizer, recently said, “We have now scaled the manufacturing capacity up to 3 billion doses in 2021, and more than 40% of these doses are expected to go to middle- and low-income countries.” And that’s just for the BioNTech-Pfizer efforts.
That said, vaccine manufacturing capacity is considered a bottleneck in fighting the pandemic. Before the pandemic, vaccine manufacturers made between 3.5 billion and 5.5 billion doses of all vaccines globally every year.
About 6 billion people on the planet are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, which typically require two doses. And as the age groups available expand, that number will close in on 8 billion. It generally takes five years to build and certify new large-scale manufacturing plants, and in the case of COVID-19 vaccines, the raw materials can also be a limiting factor, as can be trained, skilled workers.
As the pandemic falls under control and becomes a memory, it will be interesting to see if the public and governments have the usual short-term memory problems. Everyone came together to share and focus resources on fighting COVID-19, but will it invest in prevention, identification, and treatments for future pandemics? Prior to the COVID-19 vaccine, many governments, including the Trump administration, gutted the response programs, apparently not viewing them as high priority.
Angie You, chief executive officer of Amunix, said, “I hope to see continued investment and prioritization of rapid vaccine development, including worldwide access to these novel vaccines. I hope this enables the world to stay ahead of the COVID variants (or future viruses), mitigating future global shut-downs and preventing massive illness and deaths.”