Guest Column | March 25, 2020

Beyond COVID-19: The Need For Sustainable Change In The Life Science Industry

By Sophia Ononye-Onyia, PhD, MPH, MBA, Founder and CEO, The Sophia Consulting Firm

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The biggest challenge posed by COVID-19 is probably the high degree of global uncertainty that may disrupt normal routine and business operations for an indefinite period. Aside from the obvious economic impact, the most important implication from this pandemic may be our limited ability to rely on healthcare systems and governments for proper diagnosis and treatment of infectious diseases. In fact, an analysis of newly approved drugs across all markets in the past five years showcases a disparate focus on chronic diseases relative to infectious diseases. In many ways, our focus on tertiary care shows that we have been overconfident about the public health progress we achieved in the early part of the 20th century, particularly the widespread use of vaccines for the prevention of diseases such as polio. Moreover, pipeline planning for many life science companies typically favor assets that are more likely to yield substantial returns on investment (ROIs) based on high research and development (R&D) costs and demand. 

Consequently, this pandemic is an opportunity for life science companies to revamp their portfolios and to think about other tools that can be utilized to properly predict and manage infectious diseases in a globalized world. The decision to develop new therapies cannot be driven mainly by financial models, which is probably a key reason for the poor reputation of Big Pharma. In fact, it has never been more obvious how vulnerable we are as humans and that we are all fundamentally patients and caregivers. Hence, it is important to evolve our fairly rudimentary public health practices in a cohesive manner that is indicative of the substantial technological innovation we have achieved in the 21st century. In other words, with predictive technologies powered by artificial intelligence (A.I.), our epidemiological surveillance and drug development approaches should be proactive and not reactionary. Similarly our approach to drug discovery and development, particularly for cell therapies, should be more expansive. For example, we should further investigate currently untapped approaches such as microbiome mining, which is important as taps into our bodies’ immuno-modulatory mechanisms to develop new broad spectrum and targeted antivirals target that can be used to fight the impact of the corona virus. In addition, high throughput screening may reveal previously approved therapies that can be leveraged in combatting this pandemic.

However, the need for remote working, social distancing, and other self-quarantine methods is making traditional bench science, clinical trial recruitment, patient monitoring and reporting extremely challenging. Additionally, many patients enrolled in clinical trials particularly in the oncology and autoimmune disorder space may also have co-morbidities and/or weakened immune systems, which make them more susceptible to infectious diseases such as COVID-19. Fortunately, we have also seen significantly increased speeds of regulatory approvals for diagnostic and therapeutic tools that may help in the management of COVID-19.

Yet, the accelerated approval rates begs the question on why faster approvals cannot be the norm. In a fast-paced digital space where news can be spread globally in the space of seconds, how can we ensure that the life science industry is also ahead of the curve? There is a tendency to revert back to “normal” following a major crisis but it is even more important that lessons learned are integrated into future practices to ensure sustainability.

It is often said that “health is wealth.” This is indeed true as COVID-19 has impacted practically every individual on the planet. Inter-industry and intra-industry collaborations are significantly more important. It is particularly important to see more collaborations between technology companies and life science companies. For example, Microsoft and Adaptive Biotechnologies recently announced they will leverage their existing partnership mapping population-wide adaptive immune responses to diseases at scale to study COVID-19. This partnership is important because it will help to lead an effort to better understand how the human immune system responds to the virus. One of the key areas for growth is the need for virtual /remote clinical trials, which are also known as decentralized trials, remote trials, direct-to-patient trials, and hybrid trials. These virtual trials incorporate patient-facing technologies, such as tablets, smartphone apps, or wearable sensors to engage and monitor patients during clinicals studies. Implicit in virtual trials is the need for software tools that can facilitate patient comfort and ease in sharing personal information across clinical trial networks. Once again, COVID-19 is serving as a call-to-action to accelerate and embrace technological tools across all facets of the life science industry.

Notably, the disruptions caused by the cancellation or postponement of many medical meetings showcase our continued reliance on face-to-face meetings as the primary way of exchanging information despite the surge and ease of video conferencing tools. These cancellations impact most life science companies particularly emerging biopharmaceutical companies because most investors rely on clinical data that are presented at these medical meetings to guide their investment decisions. For example, the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) is one of the largest in the world and boasts about thirty thousand global attendees who gather each year in Chicago to discuss and amplify the latest data in the oncology space. Therefore, it was reassuring to read the latest corporate announcement from ASCO management who set a precedent for the rest of the life science space when they recently announced plans to use a pending “virtual format that respects the contributions of the authors” and to also publish abstracts “online and in the Journal of Clinical Oncology on our usual schedule.” Given the increased popularity of electronic posters (e-posters), conference organizers may need to follow suit by relying virtual resources to enable continued dissemination of important clinical updates that may be transformative for patients all over the world.

In closing, the “not in my backyard” approach to infectious diseases can no longer be utilized as evidenced by the continued, global impact of COVID-19. Life science companies must prioritize novel anti-infectives, companion diagnostic tools and vaccines while leveraging AI, high throughput screening (HTS), and other technological tools to identify previously approved drugs that can be fast-tracked to combat the current pandemic while preparing for future outbreaks. Most importantly, there is a distinct need for increased collaborations between the life science industry, academic, governments, non-profits, and other industries particularly the technology sector will be needed to ensure that we are one step forward in protecting our most valuable asset — our health.

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Sophia Ononye, PhD MPH MBA, is a Yale-trained molecular oncologist, life science strategist and Founder & CEO of The Sophia Consulting Firm.