by Mike DeLone, US life sciences leader, Deloitte LLP
I realized the other day that I have been using the word “inspired” quite a bit lately. It’s a word that we haven’t heard much over the past few months, but I am feeling increasingly inspired by what I’m seeing in the life sciences sector.
In a remarkedly short period of time, the COVID-19 pandemic devastated world economies and has caused more than 134,000 deaths in the US alone. The threat of the virus has created an unmatched sense of urgency in the life sciences sector. At this point, the collective hopes of the world are in the hands of companies that are developing vaccines, diagnostics, and treatment therapies that will allow us to prevent, detect, and treat COVID-19. Here’s why I see this as inspiring:
- I am inspired by a new level of collaboration: Life sciences companies, even fierce competitors, have teamed up to solve the world’s most preeminent problem. They are putting their best minds together and sharing information for the common good. These organizations are moving forward with speed that is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. In March, for example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation formed a $125 million COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator. Fifteen life sciences companies agreed to share their proprietary libraries of molecular compounds to fast track drug discovery and vaccine development.1 Some of the world’s leading plasma companies have put aside their individual research to participate in the CoVIg-19 Plasma Alliance. Once organizations see the value of collaboration for a common good, I believe there is no going back. You can’t un-see the power of collaboration. A company’s purpose is rapidly becoming as important as shareholder value. As my colleague Greg Reh noted in his recent blog, developing a vaccine for COVID-19 requires collaboration on an unprecedented scale. Not only are companies volunteering to work together, but regulatory bodies have removed long-standing barriers, which has opened the door to more rapid progress. The US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Coronavirus Treatment Acceleration Program (CTAP) is providing ultra-rapid protocol review, aiming for 24-hour turnaround times, and expediting quality assessments for COVID-19 products and treatments. I expect that this level of collaboration is going to continue, which could push the industry much further ahead than would have been possible otherwise.
- I am inspired by the use of sophisticated technology: Improvements in next-generation sequencing technologies made it possible to sequence the full genome structure of SARS-CoV-2 in less than a week. During the 2002 SARS pandemic, genome sequencing took more than two months. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine-learning (ML) tools helped accelerate the identification of proteins exhibited by the SARS-CoV-2 virus and simulate interaction of molecular compounds with those proteins. Computational scientists at Rutgers University and Brookhaven National Laboratory, for example, are using AI paired with ML and high-performance computer simulations to sift through 1 billion small molecules to identify existing drugs that have the potential to bind with and disrupt SARS-CoV-2 protiens.2
- I am inspired by investments and an unprecedented level of commitment: Almost without exception, life sciences companies are making new investments without a clear payback. More than 100 large and small organizations are working on vaccines, diagnostics, and treatments for COVID-19. Companies are exploring a number of novel mechanisms, such as RNA-based technologies, gene-editing platforms, and cell and gene therapies, to accelerate vaccine development. Nearly 50 diagnostics solutions have been approved and are available in the market. More than 40 treatments are in clinical trials and more than half of them are in Phase III trials. I believe some of the smartest and most caring people work in the life sciences sector, and many of them are stepping forward when it matters most!
- I am inspired by the promise of stronger supply chains: The pandemic illustrated that the supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link. In the US, about 90 percent of all prescriptions are filled by generics. Nearly one-third of those drugs are produced in India, and close to 70 percent of raw materials come from China. When the pandemic forced China to lock down, Indian manufacturers were unable to continue production. A large biopharmaceutical company might have more than 25 FDA-registered sites around the world and could rely on thousands of suppliers. Each of those suppliers might rely on other companies for materials (the suppliers of the suppliers). Many companies are now taking a closer look at all of the processes and sources used to produce a drug or device. This will likely lead to a higher level of transparency and intelligence that will benefit patients around the world. I expect that supply chains are going to be stronger as we emerge from the pandemic. They will be more self-healing, which means that organizations will be able to identify weak links and respond to them before they break.
- I am inspired by company leaders who are able to look beyond this public health crisis: Many of them see this moment in time as an opportunity to advance science beyond COVID-19. They are looking at ways to use technology and digital tools to make clinical trials more diverse and inclusive, as my colleague Dawn Anderson noted in her blog. The ability for people to participate in a clinical trial without having to travel to a central site is a game-changer when it comes to future research and development (R&D).
- I am inspired by the authentic reaction to racial inequities and a commitment to improving diversity: Company leaders clearly understand their role and are embracing that responsibility to close the opportunity gap. Several company leaders have publicly committed to combat racial injustices and improve the diversity of this great industry. Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier, for example, recently noted that the industry still has beliefs, policies, and practices that that lead to racial inequity.3 Higher rates of COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths among Blacks and Hispanics in New York City prompted Genentech to launch clinical trials in hospitals that care for underserved communities.4
I expect that vaccines, therapies, and diagnostic tests for a broad range of diseases will advance in a significant way. There is a palpable fortitude that I have seen from the life sciences sector. I am inspired that, in a moment that matters, medtech and biopharmaceutical companies are maximizing their abilities, their capacities, their science, and their compassion. While there is an incredible amount of work still to be done, I suspect we will look back on this very challenging and troubling time as a defining point that moved the industry a giant leap forward.
1. Press Release: Life sciences companies commit expertise and assets to the fight against COVID-19 pandemic, Press release, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, March 25
2. Machine learning has pegged existing drugs to repurpose for COVID-19 clinical trials, The Scientist, May 7, 2020
3. CEOs are offering plans and investments to address racial inequality after George Floyd death, CNBC, June 11, 2020
4. A call for more inclusive COVID-19 research: Tackling disparities during a pandemic, STAT, May 20, 2020