Building a More Resilient Biopharma Industry
The COVID-19 pandemic was a wake-up call for governments, emphasizing the need to increase their involvement in, and support of, the biopharma industry. While some positive changes have been made, further improvements are required to meet the needs of biopharma companies. The Global Biopharma Resilience Index – a report compiled by Cytiva to provide insights into the present state of the biopharma industry and its ability to respond to future challenges – highlighted several areas where government involvement could help to build resilience in the industry.
Technology Networks spoke to Conor McKechnie, vice president of strategy and marketing at Cytiva, to learn more about the Biopharma Resilience Index and the changes required to get new therapeutics to market quicker and ensure that life-saving medications are available globally.
Anna MacDonald (AM): “Building resilience” is a common phrase to describe what the biopharma industry needs to do to be prepared for the next pandemic. What does it mean to you at Cytiva?
Conor McKechnieSimply put, it is building on what we knew and did already, with what we learned as we delivered for customers through the pandemic, so that we can do better for more people in the future. Increased access to life-changing therapies is already transforming human health and resilience is crucial to securing what we are working towards as a sector. This industry is maturing well and setting it up for long-term success is a formidable and multidisciplinary challenge.
AM: What is Cytiva’s Biopharma Resilience Index and what can we learn from it?
CM: This is research we published in 2021 and have now revisited with additional data focusing on the role of policymakers and government. Our 2021 report ranked the strength of, and confidence in, the biopharma industry across the world. We interviewed 1000 senior pharma executives and healthcare policy makers. They told us about the struggle to access the right talent, the bottlenecks in the R&D ecosystem, the role of engaged governments, the need for manufacturing flexibility and for robust supply chains. For each challenge, the report recommends how the industry could forge a more resilient future by doing things such as establishing more flexible manufacturing capacity and looking at domestic production where it makes sense, to bolster global supply chains.
AM: Government policy and regulation are one of the areas you talk about in the report. How has the regulatory environment changed during COVID – is this for better or worse?
CM: The fast-tracked review and approval of COVID-19 vaccines showed that regulators can be as innovative as the industry they regulate. The pandemic also showed how critical the life sciences sector is to public health. As a result, we see lots of government rhetoric about investing and enabling the industry to succeed. Indeed, around half of the industry leaders we surveyed for Cytiva’s Biopharma Resilience Index expect communication between government representatives and biopharmaceutical executives to increase.
The challenge will be maintaining momentum and translating intention into policy and sustained investment. We, as the biopharma companies, have a responsibility to keep the needs of the industry on the top of government agendas. For example, the Bioindustry Association in the UK advocates across multiple important areas – from tax credits to an integrated healthcare system – that create a favorable environment for the industry to thrive.
CM: So much of the future of medicine is dependent on the convergence of biology, engineering, materials science and information technology. Governments need to provide a supportive foundation, to promote multidisciplinary collaboration, and that enables the translation of innovative science, wherever it comes from, into commercial success. Of course, that requires long-term steady investment in science and innovation, but also, promotion of multi-disciplinary career paths to build a talent pipeline for highly valued jobs in science and technology. All of this is reliant on a nation being globally competitive on policy.
These things need to be kept in clear focus, and the approach should be apolitical. Contributors from the UK to our Biopharma Resilience Index said that the country has ambitions to be a life sciences leader in scaling up innovation from its top universities and institutions. We have seen that public-private partnerships and open collaboration models, such as those in Stevenage and Cambridge, work. However, there is a very real risk that this lauded focus on translating research into real world applications may be hampered, as UK researchers may lose access to EU-funded research programs and decades old scientific relations and collaborations across the UK and Europe. Loss of those crucial collaborations will not strengthen the UK’s international science base.
Ultimately, we all have the same goal, for more people to benefit from the relentless forward-progress of medical science. We must look at what we need to put in place practically to enable the focused work that the pandemic required and apply it to different similarly pressing areas such as cancer therapeutics, chronic disease and, of course, infectious diseases.
AM: What’s ultimately required to maintain momentum, to get new therapeutics to market quicker?
CM: Research and development only get you so far. Manufacturing capacity and flexibility are key to accelerating future therapeutics. If we look at the long term, the need for biotechnology products will continue to grow. Bioplan’s 2021 report stated 50% of the therapy candidates in pharmaceutical R&D are biotherapeutics. At Cytiva, we are delivering on our plan to expand manufacturing capacity for life sciences products at 13 Cytiva and Pall Life Sciences sites. A plan accelerated by, but forged before, the pandemic.
Our commitment goes beyond delivery of our products and services. It is about ensuring they are enabling our customers – the therapy manufacturers, among others – to scale up and optimize their processes through digital tools and automation. Ultimately, we all have a role, from biopharma, to regulators, to governments, and it is critical we stay focused on making it work, for the patients at the end of the process.
AM: Where do you think the industry will be in five years’ time in terms of resilience and innovation?
CM: Five years is not a long time in biotech. At the same time, the field is accelerating. We will be in a better place than we were at the start of COVID-19. Bio-vigilance and advances in sequencing will mean earlier warnings. Global collaboration will be faster to kick in. Advances, such as those driven by mRNA technology platforms, will mean we will be much quicker to develop and approve effective vaccines that are less reliant on cold chains. Manufacturing will be better distributed and, I hope, access will be more equitable. COVID-19 vaccines saved an estimated 20 million lives in their first year of approval. Next time, the impact will be greater.
Some things, however, may not change. Vaccine nationalism, motivated by political forces, will remain a real threat. We are not safe until everyone is safe. There will also still be a skills gap in many countries, even those with advanced economies. The UK’s Open University and the British Chambers of Commerce, for example, found that 70% of companies in all sectors face skills shortages. The UK government believes it needs 150,000 more researchers and technicians by 2030 to hit its R&D targets. We as an industry must get a grip on these challenges if we are going to realize the full potential of the life sciences and deliver on its benefits to patients.
Conor McKechnie was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer for Technology Networks.