Pharma in the times of Covid-19 crisis: What lies ahead

With increasing globalization, it seems that the world is shrinking. The pharmaceutical industry has been quick to adapt to this philosophy and accommodate rising demands for advanced medicines across the globe. With the set-up of product R&D and manufacturing centers worldwide, the pharma supply chain has become global. While this allowed businesses to leverage local resources and reach diverse populations, it has led them to face financial, organizational, and technological crises under the present dynamic world economy. The current pandemic has affected over 200 countries, has also highlighted the pitfalls of this interdependent economic ecosystem pitfalls. There’s no doubt that the $90 trillion global economy is experiencing its worst crisis ever since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The unprecedented drop in trade & economic activity due to lockdown measures to contain the virus has crippled businesses and left millions jobless. Can there be a light at the end of this seemingly endless tunnel? I believe there is.

While all businesses had to pivot to stay relevant in the current economic scenario, the pharmaceutical sector has been at the epicenter of this turmoil. Travel and import bans disrupted supply chains that affected manufacturing capabilities; uncertainty in trade due to global economic volatility reduced revenues and slowed growth. Even when these challenges disrupted the industry, pharma innovators led the charge to fight against the Covid-19 crisis. Pharmaceutical resources were mobilized towards finding diagnostic, preventative, and curative measures. The resulting scientific innovation propelled at a pace that was unheard of. The best example of this is the vaccine development timeline. The fastest vaccine to have ever been developed is four years, and this was when the mumps vaccine got approved in 1967.

In contrast, in December 2020, less than a year into development, Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine became the first to be approved for emergency usage by FDA. Interestingly, this is also the first vaccine developed using an mRNA platform, a technology never previously approved for general use. The validation of this new technology and the accelerated testing speed has changed the future of vaccine science. Since then, many more vaccines using different platforms are being approved. Could this have been possible without the crisis that created a sense of urgency? I don’t think so.

Besides vaccine development, pharma companies are working round the clock to develop therapeutic resources for Covid-19. As per US-FDA data, ten drugs and biological products are approved for emergency uses, and over 620 other drug development programs are in the Pre-IND stage. These programs belong to diverse categories, including antivirals, immunomodulators, biologics, gene, and cell therapy. Production of medicines in high demand, like antipyretics, analgesics, and multi-vitamins, has also been increased. Companies like Gilead and Eli Lilly have signed non-exclusive licensing agreements with generic pharmaceutical manufacturers to increase the availability of their Covid-19 drugs throughout the world. Additionally, as part of their humanitarian outreach, several big pharma companies like Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, Boehringer Ingelheim, to name a few, are making in-kind and financial donations to vulnerable communities.

As borders blur, there is an increasing realization that global well-being across all nations is the only way out. Indeed, the pharma sector has delivered on its promise for a quick global response during this pandemic by forging ahead at wartime speed. But what lies ahead? While the fear of the next phase of pandemic still lurks, data analysis thus far indicates that chronic, pre-existing medical conditions have played a critical role in driving mortality due to Covid-19. An increase in the aging population and lifestyle changes contributes to a steady increase in such chronic diseases, including diabetes, cardiometabolic conditions, arthritis, etc. The pandemic has worsened these statistics and increased the pressure on health systems. Patients’ demands for chronic care needs thus are expected to be a major burden on the pharma sector shortly. The situation calls for a complete strategic restructuring of pharma businesses to cater to accurate diagnostic solutions and safer and affordable drugs for long-term needs.

Traditionally, considered a sector averse to risk in terms of adopting new technologies, pharma companies have now started to focus on discovery research, digital transformation, and new modes of customer engagement. Global R&D for this sector is poised to increase from $165 billion in 2017 to about $203 billion in 2024. A massive revamp with increased R&D investment is thus in-store to adopt new and emerging technologies to navigate the companies efficiently into the future. Few technologies that will drive this pharma revolution are listed below:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI): AI is digitally transforming every facet of the pharma industry — from disease diagnosis to discovery R&D and drug manufacture to patient care. The biggest impact that AI aims to bring is to ease identifying and validating new drugs by predicting drug-target interaction at the molecular level. By making the drug design process more efficient, AI can reduce the cost of developing new drugs, which currently stands at a staggering average of $1.3 billion.
  • Organ-on-a-Chip (OOAC): One of the biggest challenges in drug discovery is accurately predicting drug responses in the context of human physiology. Animal models do not always reflect human disease physiology, making data extrapolation inaccurate. OOAC offers an alternative to this traditional animal model testing. It is a biomimetic system of a human organ built on a microfluidic chip. These devices recapitulate human organs’ structural and functional characteristics and hence provide precise insights into human health. Better prediction reduces failure rate and enables faster and cheaper drug development. OOAC was named amongst the Top 10 Technologies of 2016 by the World Economic Forum, considering its potential game-changing impact.
  • Digital Medicine: The Internet of things (IoT) revolution has swept through the pharma sector and is changing how patients engage with their healthcare system. From wearable biosensors that monitor your vital signs to insulin pens and connected inhalers, digital medicine allows remote health monitoring. It allows the gathering of real-time analytics to generate actionable insights. With tech giants like Apple, Samsung, and Google in the race to demonstrate their commitment to assist in health monitoring, digital medicine will be transformative for patients, especially for chronic illnesses.
  • 3D Printing: Customized pharmaceutics is no longer a thing of fantasy. Pharma companies are beginning to move away from the “one-size fits all” model of mass production towards a more personalized one. Thanks to 3D printing — a technique that acts as a resourceful tool for producing individually designed dosage forms and tailor-made prostheses for patient needs. It allows for producing small, patient-centric batches of different shapes, sizes, and release characteristics with high precision. With better automation, reduced wastage, and the possibility of easy modifications of a product at a design level, 3D Printing is an easy-to-use and cost-effective alternative to conventional manufacturing methods.

Can pharma businesses sustain “Operation Warp Speed” for new drugs and medicine development? Only time will tell. The last few months have shown us that with inclusive partnerships of all stakeholders- governments, regulators, academia, and industry, innovative solutions can be accelerated to benefit the people. With the uncertainty about how long the Covid-19 crisis will last, the pharma industry needs to work with a sense of purpose, now more than ever, to improve healthcare which will enhance living standards and save lives.

By — Dr. Parul Ganju
Ahammune Biosciences Private Limited

An early-stage VC fund investing in technology product companies in India.