By Dr Steve Arlington, President, The Pistoia Alliance
COVID-19 has dealt the life sciences a host of challenges, but it’s also been the catalyst for positive change. As the industry has turned its resources towards developing critical vaccines and therapies, organisations, governments, regulators, researchers and academia have come together in ways never seen before. In fact, the pandemic has made infectious diseases the number one therapy area for contract service agreements, overtaking oncology (1).
Yet, while the pandemic has brought about an increase in willingness to collaborate, there are still many pre-existing hurdles to cooperative working that are slowing progress in the life sciences industry. The infrastructure for organisations to share data is still lacking, there are still sizable gaps in knowledge of some therapeutics, and facilitating easy collaboration with stakeholders outside the industry is still a challenge.
To examine these issues and establish what has been learned – and what is still to be learned – from COVID-19, The Pistoia Alliance held a roundtable of leading pharma figures at our recent virtual annual conference (2). I was delighted to chair the panel, which also included:
- Manuel Guzman, President, Chemical Abstracts Service
- Dr. Thomas Hudson, SVP, R&D and Chief Scientific Officer, AbbVie
- Dr. Palani Kumaresan, Life Cycle Leader, Roche Diagnostics International
- Dr. Merdad Parsey, Chief Medical Officer, Gilead Sciences
- Dr. Bryn Roberts, SVP, Global Head of Operations for Pharma Research & Early Development, Roche
The discussion shed light on a multitude of ways that life sciences has beaten the odds and adapted for the better – as well as key areas for change so this progress can continue.
Success stories to date:
There can be no underestimating the efforts of organisations to adapt to the events of 2020 and embark on collaborative projects that combat COVID-19 head-on. This was something the roundtable participants were keen to highlight. AbbVie’s Thomas Hudson praised the increased interaction between leaders and scientists, and the industry’s commitment to working together to take practical steps to tackle the virus. Organisations have come together to create and share data sets, provision tools, and provide access to technical skills. Vaccines from the likes of Pfizer and BioNTech are clear examples of how such collaborations are bearing fruit (3).
Gilead Sciences’s Dr Merdad Parsey also drew on his own experience of collaborating during the pandemic: “During COVID-19, collaboration has been the lifeblood of R&D. From the outset, we’ve been dependent on working together – initially diagnostics in vivo and in vitro could only be done through government laboratories, and we also worked with the I-SPY network, the NIH and WHO to conduct trials. We couldn’t have got to where we are now if we didn’t all work together.”
The life sciences’ greater use of digital tools in response to the pandemic is also notable – particularly to conduct clinical trials virtually, since social distancing restrictions have limited the scope of contact-based trials. By April 2020, 60% of major pharma companies were already using telemedicine for trial visits in response to COVID-19 (4). At The Pistoia Alliance, we also launched a collaborative project during the summer to further advance the use of digital tools in clinical trials, and there’s huge potential for this innovation to continue (5).
Lessons still to be learned
The industry’s increasing willingness to share data and work together has been a beacon of hope during the pandemic, but there are still opportunities for us all to collaborate further. During the roundtable, five key areas life sciences stakeholders must focus on to continue seeing breakthroughs emerged:
- Greater input from outside the industry:The panel discussed how collaborations between life sciences companies and those outside the industry are still limited. Input from ‘external’ organisations, including chemicals, technology, manufacturing, and supply chain businesses, is crucial to developing and administering COVID-19 therapeutics. As a result, working with those outside our immediate circle and continuing to build trust is essential, as is developing the infrastructure to share data between companies securely.
- Governments leading the charge:Another talking point was the need for governments to continue encouraging and incentivising the spirit of openness that has been so successful. Actively encouraging proven therapeutics and preventative measures such as immuno-enhancers will also be a key responsibility of governments, as well as accelerating the deployment of diagnostic tools that will eventually help the world return to some form of normal.
- Closing knowledge gaps:To date, we have identified a number of COVID-19 therapeutics that are delivering many benefits, but there is still a lot we don’t understand. For instance, it is still unclear why certain patients end up seriously ill with the virus and others don’t, why certain steroids can limit the severity of the illness but others don’t, or the true extent of why BAME groups are disproportionately affected. The relative lack of research into nasal therapies, given that nasal cells are recognised as likely initial infection sites for COVID-19, was also highlighted (6). Collaborative research efforts will help to close these gaps.
- Better data-sharing infrastructure:Getting data ‘back’ from partners after experimental therapies have been supplied to patients was identified as a challenge by panellists due to a lack of infrastructure for secure and simple data sharing. They also discussed the need to remove barriers to sharing information outside of the life science ecosystem. It’s clear that a centralised data platform or repository is needed, where organisations can easily share pre-competitive data.
- Greater experimentation with technology:As we look to the future, digital tools like wearables, home and environment monitoring, mobile apps and devices, plus cloud and automation technologies, will be central to further innovation. Yet, because technology creates and collects such large volumes of data, we need standards to manage data securely. We will need organisations from both the life sciences and tech worlds to come together and build platforms that enable cross-discipline data sharing with agreed standards.
Progress around these opportunities for further advancement will be underpinned by collaboration and cooperation. There has never been a greater need for organisations to work together. The life sciences sector has changed for the better as a result of COVID-19, and I am hugely impressed by the outstanding efforts of our members to help humanity overcome the crisis. The results of collaborative projects have underlined the very reason behind the founding of the Alliance. Yet, we must remember that existing roadblocks to R&D innovation have not simply gone away, and we need more than ever to share tools, data and talent with our peers and those outside the industry. Continuing this innovation and developing crucial treatments is well within our reach – but only if we ramp up our efforts and work together now.