A reflection on the Biotech Industry’s response to COVID-19
This month, the annual Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) International Convention, one of the world’s largest biotechnology-related conferences, was hosted virtually in June. The convention’s theme was ‘nothing stops innovation’. This is a powerful sentiment that represents the ingenuity of the biotechnology industry and its ongoing effort to overcome COVID-19. The virtual gathering was an impressive achievement, one that facilitated international networking (of 6,500 delegates from 64 countries) at a time when global restrictions make starting new collaborations challenging.
Despite these limitations, researchers, practitioners, regulators and manufacturers have come together over the last three months as part of a global attack on COVID-19. They have been working grueling hours to overcome the hurdles presented by the sudden onset of this pandemic, creating an age of scientific collaboration unlike any other. One where data is openly shared, manufacturers re-purpose and innovate to support supply chains, regulatory requirements are reconsidered, and global partnerships are forged.
As at 9 June 2020 this massive effort has produced 10 candidate vaccines in evaluation, 123 candidate vaccines in pre-clinical evaluation and over 200 novel or re-purposed treatments in various stages of development. While a vaccine’s average time to market is usually 10-15 years, there is now hope for our first COVID-19 vaccine within the next 12-18 months. Something that has only become possible with the globalisation of the COVID-19 research. We are proud of our clients that have been involved in this massive collaborative effort and specifically one of which that has repurposed its anti-cancer drug candidate and now has Australia’s leading prospective antiviral drug. Clinical trials will be undertaken in the US to test its safety and efficacy in treating COVID-19 patients.
It’s inevitable that we will discover more novel pathogens in the future. Looking back over the last fifty years, we have endured the AIDS and Ebola epidemics, and these events (along with the results of the COVID-19 research) have revealed that we must strengthen our global research capacity to prepare for the future. A global research capacity would allow resource sharing and potentially support disrupted supply chains to fast-track innovation. It could help ensure that all countries are equipped with the resources and expertise required to respond quickly and effectively to the next epidemic. This could decrease the initial number of infections and subsequently decrease the epidemic’s global impact.
The globally respected Australian Biotechnology sector currently has a unique opportunity to showcase our skills to the world as our biotech companies pivot to develop solutions and collaborate with the global industry to get us through this pandemic and better prepare us for another. With generous government funding and support to drive innovation, Australian biotech companies can access the R&D Tax Incentive, which can provide some companies with 43.5% of the R&D expenditure back as a refund, the Accelerating Commercialisation grant (matched funding of up to $1M) and various Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) grants specifically targeted at COVID-19 related research. In addition, the Biomedical Translation Bridge grant offered a specific round of funding to companies that are developing a product (prophylactic, therapeutic or medical device) to assist with the COVID-19 pandemic that has potential markets beyond Australia.
Nothing stops innovation. In fact I would say that adversity drives it. Adversity provides not only a problem, but also an opportunity for growth. These global events that have affected us all also connect us all. The COVID-19 crisis has proven that the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries across Australia and the globe are capable of incredible collaboration to drive innovation and correct industry inefficiencies- to re-evaluate regulations and the speed at which therapeutics are developed, as well as to secure supply chains and build better infrastructures for openly sharing information and resources. If you share my passion for the Biotech industry and the work it’s doing through COVID-19, I highly recommend reading ‘Biotechnology in the Time of COVID-19: Commentaries from the Front Line’, a collection of stories, edited by Dr. Jeremy M. Levin, about the biotechnology industry and how it has risen to battle COVID-19, told by the words of forty-seven industry leaders. The editor’s royalties and a portion of the publisher’s revenue will be donated to non-profit, rare disease research organisations.