Posted: 11 May 2021 10 min. read

Global Life Sciences Outlook: COVID-19 elevated the role of life sciences, but can the sector sustain momentum?

By Vicky Levy, Global Life Sciences sector leader, Deloitte Consulting, LLP

Last year, and well into this one, the life sciences sector has been working collectively to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic head-on. Never before have so many of the world’s researchers focused so urgently on a single topic.1 Public and private partnerships paved the way for COVID-19 vaccines to be developed in a record 10 months.2 After just four months, almost a billion doses had been administered across 157 countries.3 This remarkable collaboration among all stakeholders is driving an unprecedented pace of innovation.

The pandemic also shined a light on health and social inequities around the globe. Daily, we read reports of inequity in vaccine distribution, in caring for COVID-19 patients, and more broadly, in the long-term impact the pandemic is having on different segments and communities. I expect life sciences organizations will continue to step up and seek to address the immediate health needs related to COVID-19. Life sciences companies are also working collaboratively to address systemic inequity. Big and small companies from around the world are making bold commitments to improve diversity and inclusion in clinical trials, in the communities they serve, and among their workers. This is a great time to be part of the life sciences sector.

There are many questions for the industry to address. As vaccines meet their test in the real world, more women are experiencing adverse events than are men. Are vaccine manufacturers sufficiently studying gender differences? Community leaders and celebrities are modeling vaccine acceptance, but are we thinking about how this engagement might continue post pandemic? A better world depends on continuous improvement, and we should never stop wondering how to be and do better. I see this as a watershed moment where we could see exponential progress.

Seven trends to watch in life sciences

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted all aspects of the life sciences sector. In developing our global life sciences outlook, my team and I identified seven overarching trends to watch. These are the areas where we see the most potential for continued change and impact in the sector over the next year and beyond. These trends, along with the questions we’ve provided to stimulate ideas, are intended to be a starting point for strategic decision-making:

  • Redesigned work, workplaces, and workforces: Work intersected with real-life during the pandemic. How we will work in the future is yet to be determined but continued remote work (when possible) will likely be part of any future. Remote work has its own challenges, and work will need to be redesigned to be more human, more fluid, and uber-flexible. It’s also important to recognize that not everyone wants to (or is able to) work from home. As we question how to use physical spaces, we also should find new ways to collaborate and maintain work culture. In addition, the pressures of the pandemic increased mental health issues, and virtual mental health care is booming. Mental health is a priority for employees and employers, and redesigning work will likely require a wholistic focus on well-being, not just wellness programs.
  • Accelerated digitization: The almost-overnight adoption of virtual technologies prompted by the pandemic opened new vistas of possibility and collaboration. Some episodic care is being replaced by real-time monitoring supported by data-driven devices, telemedicine, and virtual care. Digital technology has provided many patients with greater access to clinicians, and many clinicians are becoming more empowered to address the needs of the whole patient. At this point, access is often uneven because it requires digital readiness across the health care continuum, including with patients. Technology giants continue to advance into the health care market. Many of them are expanding cloud capabilities and are opening up new points of care—including the connected home. To address clinical care in the home, consumer tech companies, large and small, are challenging medtech incumbents in redesigning technology and diagnostics. Retail pharmacies are also expanding clinical care. The pharmacist’s role is expected to increase and expand, as my colleague George Van Antwerp explained in his recent blog on the future of pharmacies and pharmacists.
  • More customer-centric commercial care models: As health care becomes more digital and virtual, the life sciences sector will need to engage in a much more human and empathetic manner to keep pace with changes to the health care delivery model that my colleague Dr. Stephanie Allen described in Deloitte's 2021 global health care outlook. Communicating in virtual settings is a new skill, and mastering it has been a challenge for clinicians as well as for pharmaceutical sales representatives. While virtual health has advanced significantly over the past year, some physicians might want to re-establish in-person visits post pandemic. It will be important to address the individual needs of physicians with humanity and empathy so they can more effectively meet the needs of their patients. Many physicians are demanding more scientific information, and we are seeing more investments in medical affairs. Medical congresses of the future will likely be hybrid events—digital and in-person—embracing virtual technology, AI, and social media. As care delivery has fundamentally shifted, so too should the commercial model of life sciences.
  • New types of collaborations in manufacturing and in clinical trials: The need to accelerate vaccine development sparked new ways of collaborating among companies. This led to more efficient ways of developing, manufacturing, and commercializing medicines, as my colleague Mike Delone noted in his 2021 US outlook for life sciences. Where one organization needed a capability, another quickly filled that need. More decentralized, patient-centric clinical trials will likely decrease the duration of trials and might also create opportunities to increase diversity. Novel partnerships and the rapid adoption of technologies could provide new sources of data, deeper insights, and shorter development timelines.
  • Shorter development and review timelines and tougher (or perhaps different) oversight: The desire to shorten development and review timelines will likely put pressure on regulatory bodies to work differently. Innovative medicines and new technologies, such as mRNA, are already increasing workloads for regulators. The sheer number of cell and gene therapy clinical trials could lead to tougher oversight for drug developers. In response, life sciences companies should try to think like regulators.
  • Greater supply chain visibility and reshoring options: COVID-19 illuminated organizations’ cross-border reliance—in trade, manufacturing, and distribution.4 To meet demand and to accelerate time to market, many vaccine manufacturers produced vaccines at-risk. Some competitors are now collaborating to manufacture vaccines amid supply constraints. As we continue into 2021, we expect to see a significant amount of investment in reshoring for resiliency. We also are likely to see more investment in data-driven technologies to improve supply chain visibility and to help manage supply chain risk.
  • A more prominent role in environment, social, and governance (ESG) imperatives: Life sciences is rising to a new role in society and could play a bigger role in advancing humanity. ESG imperatives are important to all generations, and the sector has demonstrated growing environmental sustainability. However, the “S” in ESG has gained more momentum as more CEOs commit publicly to bolder global outcomes. Last year, racial justice and health equity issues were elevated in plain sight. We saw life sciences organizations play more prominent roles in directly addressing diversity and inclusion in the workforce. We expect ESG could come under new scrutiny as regulators look for financial reporting that reflects actions, not words.

With the life sciences industry on its front foot, we are witnessing revolutionary science and technologies turning possibilities into realities. Some vaccine hesitancy aside, the industry is engendering a high degree of trust throughout the world. I expect 2021 will continue to be an exciting year as life sciences companies sustain this forward momentum. But let’s not forget to keep our humanity in this ever-changing and increasingly virtual world.


1.  COVID-19 changed how the world does science, together, The New York Times, April 1, 2020

2. First COVID-19 vaccines given in the US, CNET, December 14, 2020

3. Bloomberg vaccine tracker, Bloomberg, April 21, 2021

4. Pandemic Lays Bare U.S. Reliance on China for Drugs, The Wall Street, March 5, 2020

Return to the Health Forward home page to discover more insights from our leaders.

Subscribe to the Health Forward blog via email

Get in touch

Vicky Levy

Vicky Levy

Deloitte Global Life Sciences Sector Leader

Vicky Levy is the Deloitte Global Life Sciences sector leader. In this role, she ensures our leaders around the world are able to bring the best of Deloitte to bear in the life sciences sector and guides and advises Deloitte Life Sciences leaders across our global network. Levy brings more than 25 years of global life sciences professional services experience to our clients around the globe. She advises executives across a range of topics, including executive transitions, transformation, culture and diversity, equity, and inclusion.