Introduction

The end of an era?

The achievements of the life sciences industry over the past two years have been nothing short of astounding. In a previously unimaginably short time frame, the sector developed and produced multiple Covid-19 vaccines that were effectively distributed to billions of people across the globe. Simultaneously, revolutionary therapies to curb the severity of infection and a host of new diagnostics tools were introduced.

Rather than celebrating a singular entity – whether it be a pharma or biotech company, a research institution, or even an administration – it is instead a particular ethos that carried the day: the willingness to collaborate. A DNA map of the virus was distributed around the world to enable efficient collaboration in discovering vaccines. According to Anne Pritchett of PhRMA, voluntary partnerships around the world led to over 370 collaborations for Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing and 155 for therapeutics, including longstanding intellectual property protections and voluntary technology transfers. Partnerships between industries and governments were also significant: The US government invested US$13 billion into the development of vaccines, and the FDA accelerated its regulatory review process without sacrificing quality to meet the emergency.

Yet the driver of this collaboration was a common enemy: the Covid-19 virus. As such, the question presents itself: once the pandemic is over, will everybody go home?

“The experience has made some people wonder what it would look like if the industry came together to solve cancer in the same way it came together around Covid-19, but science is not simple, and collaboration is even harder.”

Juliet Hart, CEO & Founder, Hart & Chin

Juliet Hart, CEO and founder of Hart & Chin, believes this will be the case. “Once this period is over, companies will no longer be unified by the same goal, and competition will resume,” Hart predicts. “The experience has made some people wonder what it would look like if the industry came together to solve cancer in the same way it came together around Covid-19, but science is not simple and collaboration is even harder.”

Nevertheless, the past two years have created and strengthened bonds between unlikely actors who may not be so quick to forget what they can achieve when working together. While collaboration may be challenging, this period has proven that life sciences companies are more than up to the task. That is not a lesson that will likely be so quickly unlearned.

The popularity of the life sciences

Covid-19 presented a much-needed facelift to the reputation of the life sciences industry. Public opinion reached an all-time high, as people witnessed for the first time in recent history what it is like to live with a global unmet medical need. As vaccines flew through the development and regulatory processes, the public watched with a keen interest, and in doing so, learned about the groundbreaking achievements being made in fields such as mRNA technology.

In the US, there has historically been a pervading sentiment that pharmaceutical companies are overly profit-driven. The pandemic gave these companies a platform to prove otherwise. AstraZeneca, for example, was not even in the vaccine business before the start of the pandemic. That did not stop their executive leaders from making a decision to pour resources into developing a Covid-19 vaccine, aware that the global need had to be addressed immediately. If leading pharma and biotech companies did not step up, who would? This level of altruism from a public company allowed them, if only momentarily, to shift from “villain” to “hero” in the eyes of many.

At the same time, undercurrents of a war on science came to a boiling point. Spectators and officials began publicly arguing with scientific facts. The lessons learned from this period are messy and contradictory, and it remains to be seen whether in years to come the pandemic will have served as a rallying point around the triumphs of science, or a further solidification of a dividing line between its advocates and disbelievers. If 2020 was about reaction and 2021 about action, 2022 will be a year of picking up the pieces to create a stronger, more unified force that is better equipped to confront large-scale public health crises that the future holds in store.

Image courtesy of Syngene