The pandemic was, in my opinion, the single largest change event our industry has ever experienced. It made possible what we thought wasn't possible: developing multiple safe and efficacious vaccines in less than a year at a time of extreme medical need that challenged healthcare systems to their limits.  But the pandemic also revealed the need for our industry to be more resilient and better prepared for pandemic situations. And, it brought into full light the inequality in healthcare access and the imbalance in health equity. 

At the Galien Golden Jubilee Forum held on October 28th I had the pleasure of co-moderating a panel of esteemed senior leaders from Moderna, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. It was a thought-provoking and critically important dialogue on the lessons learned from Covid-19 and how those will shape future strategy. I’m sharing some of the key takeaways from that discussion in hopes we can all hold similar dialogues within our organizations and across our partner networks.

Among this leadership group there was unanimous agreement on the need to be bold; to set goals for which there is no choice but to think outside of the box; to go against the orthodoxies that have always been there and ask for the impossible. There was equal acknowledgement that it was and is people’s passion and dedication that makes what seems to be impossible, possible. When the organization is aligned around a mission from top to bottom, extraordinary things can happen. There was unprecedented private/public ecosystem collaboration across regulators, governments, NGOs and competitors up and down the supply chain, which was proof that when working collectively the industry can make a difference for humankind. 

Technology was a lesson learned, too. For example, with the inability to travel globally, one organization used digital technology supported by augmented reality to train international teams on complex manufacturing requirements.  The crisis created the need to innovate technologically on a rapid scale and teams of people made it happen.  Equal innovation occurred in engineering and across the supply chain.

There was also clear recognition that the arc of science is long and that R&D on the chosen platforms had been underway for many years. While the vaccine development timeline was unprecedented, it was based on years of work. Existing platforms enabled rapid diagnostic testing, therapeutic treatment and vaccine development to move much more quickly. To this end, panelists highlighted the importance of having a long-term view and a set direction based in fundamental science.

Our industry should be able to dramatically improve by applying Covid-19 lessons, which requires internal change as well as continued collaboration between the private and public sector.  The FDA, for example, contributed to getting vaccines to market in record times. The question in these leaders’ minds is what will the future hold?  Will timelines return to pre-pandemic pace once the Covid-19 crisis is in the rear-view mirror?  Internally, leaders recognize the challenge of not letting bureaucracy slow progress and forcing a very different way of working. That means continuing to be bold, maintaining an unrelenting focus on innovation, not being afraid to fail and growing smartly while leveraging data science and AI wherever possible. 

Biopharmaceutical leaders went into this crisis recognizing they needed vaccines that could be used globally and be supported by a global supply network­–and this thinking went into all phases from development to clinical trial representation to last mile distribution design. There were challenges in data transfer, technology transfer, getting substances across borders and many, many other areas. And there was clear agreement on the importance of bringing a global construct to bear and not letting political forces slow or interfere with what was desperately needed.  

Unfortunately, in the U.S. (as well as other parts of the world), the pandemic exposed the gap in healthcare access and outcomes despite having world class healthcare systems. It taught us to go where the people are (which may be nursing homes or church parking lots), decentralize clinical trials, share best practices state-to-state more rapidly, and many other lessons. All agreed we should use the health inequity that we have so vividly experienced to make dramatic improvements, from the science, to clinical trials, to distribution, to partnering with healthcare systems and public health networks in creative new ways.  In their words, it’s a crisis wasted if we don’t use our lessons to determine how to bring lifesaving treatments to everyone in the world.  

The legacy in our industry is that of cutthroat competition, but one of the panelists summed things up nicely: “We are an industry that has responsibility for human health. Full stop. We need to seize that and hold ourselves responsible.”

I’d love to hear how the lessons of Covid-19 are shaping your strategy moving forward, reach out to me directly.  In line with this critical topic, Accenture’s new point of view Billions to Millions shares practical strategies for improving R&D productivity while reducing treatment development costs.  It’s worth the short read.

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Petra Jantzer, PhD

Senior Managing Director – Life Sciences, Europe

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