COVID-19 Changed the Biopharma Industry - and There's No Going Back
As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its second anniversary in North America, the medical industry looks much different than it did just two years ago. Health and safety protocols have changed drastically, economies are still shifting and political tensions have heightened as a result of restrictions put in place to manage the virus.
The pandemic has also had a significant impact on the biopharma industry. From artificial intelligence breakthroughs to at-home genetic testing, here are some of the ways COVID-19 has changed the industry and what we may see in the near future.
Disease Prevention Beyond COVID-19
The most obvious change is related to vaccines. The use of vaccines for COVID-19 pioneered new processes for manufacturing mRNA vaccines. Moderna and the Pfizer-BioNTech development team earned a combined $30 billion in 2021, and the companies are projected to significantly increase that figure in 2022.
Not only are Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech changing the game when it comes to making vaccines, they’re also changing how they are distributed. In February 2022, Moderna announced four new subsidiaries in Asia to source ingredients and quickly manufacture more treatments. BioNTech plans to open one of the largest mRNA manufacturing facilities in the world in Africa to get more vaccines to countries such as Ghana, Rwanda and Senegal.
Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology is also now being used to treat many other diseases. Using similar mRNA processes, pipelines are now working on vaccines for Herpes simplex virus (HSV), varicella-zoster virus to reduce rates of shingles, several types of cancers, cytomegalovirus for multiple sclerosis, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla explained why he believes that mRNA vaccines are the future. “Clearly, it is a very powerful technology, and we have [been] just scratching the surface of it,” Bourla said. “So we decided that we are going in because we have developed also the expertise and the infrastructure that allow us to be a leading player.”
Cutting Commutes and Encouraging Collaboration
Another way the pandemic is changing the biotech industry has to do with remote work. The life sciences is a unique field in that it involves many tasks that can only be done in a lab with employees physically present. The manufacturing components of the biotech supply chain also require onsite participation. However, when the pandemic hit, as many employees as possible were asked to work from home, and some won’t be returning to the office.
Many biotech and biopharma companies are now embracing hybrid work environments. Employers such as Athersys Inc., Bolt Biotherapeutics, Flexion Therapeutics, Aristea Therapeutics and Kyowa Kirin North America are just a few of the companies that have introduced flexible options for working from home. In addition to limiting the spread of COVID-19, some companies are eager to save money on facility costs with fewer employees on site. Some firms see hybrid work models as a way to stay competitive and recruit top-tier talent, while others say it’s better for their employees’ work-life balance and mental health.
Employees who still work on-site have experienced changes as well. Many companies and industries as a whole are now more collaborative as a result of the pandemic. For example, Massachusetts-based aggregator iSpecimen offers biotech researchers and healthcare providers access to its biospecimen database. When the pandemic broke out, iSpecimen helped collate research resources to support both commercial and government entities as they studied the Omicron and Delta variants.
Similarly, British nonprofit Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC) compiled COVID-19 resources and coordinated between researchers and labs across the U.K. MDC employees helped companies complete fast-track applications for COVID grants. It also collaborated with several other companies.
MDC stated that its goal was to “combine excellence in drug discovery and protein science with innovative cellular microarray technology to uncover any unknown cellular receptors or binding proteins of COVID-19."
The pandemic also sparked new initiatives involving collaborative work in Africa. The World Health Organization has established an mRNA vaccine technology transfer hub in South Africa. The hub, supported by the WHO and its COVAX partners, will gather publicly available information on mRNA vaccines. By collaborating with various manufacturers and researchers, the hub aims to help scale up the production of COVID-19 vaccines and then distribute those vaccines across the African continent.
The Arrival of Artificial Intelligence
The use of artificial intelligence has also drastically increased within the biotech industry. At the beginning of the pandemic, BioNTech partnered with Instadeep, a Tunisia-based AI firm. Originally, Instadeep’s AI was used for language translation, but when COVID hit, BioNTech recognized the platform’s potential to model the behavior of proteins.
BioNTech was able to model proteins to find the optimal design for its mRNA vaccine, which drastically cut down on the time it would have taken to develop the vaccine otherwise. In November 2020, BioNTech extended its partnership with Instadeep to keep using AI for other vaccines in its pipeline.
Similarly, Healx is revolutionizing the use of AI in biotech. The company's AI platform, called Healnet, sorts through disease data to make meaningful connections, enabling researchers to predict connections between rare diseases and drugs that already exist. The Healnet AI platform has performed well so far, and in November 2021, Healx received Investigational New Drug (IND) approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for a Phase IIa study based on a drug-disease connection the platform found.
Healx has another 20 internal diseases in its pipeline as its AI continues to get more sophisticated.
A Transition in Testing
The pandemic has also transformed the biotech landscape with at-home testing.
As a result, companies realized the potential that these tests could have for other diseases. Companies that sell tests for everything from HIV to predictive cancer genetics exploded in popularity. Because many non-essential health facilities were closed during the pandemic, many people’s only option for testing was to order a take-home kit.
This revolution in diagnostic testing allows patients to have more flexibility when it comes to time and travel since they don’t have to go into an office. This is an option that worked well with telehealth, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Patients also avoid social anxiety related to testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections by using at-home tests instead.
As artificial intelligence and worldwide collaboration continue to shape the course of the ongoing pandemic, the biotech industry has shown its adaptability time and time again. Biopharma companies used the lessons from COVID-19 to create new product pipelines and reach more patients than ever before. Although the pandemic has caused a massive loss of life, the resulting technologies and innovation it has sparked could also save many lives in the future.