In the wake of the recent COP26 climate summit, sustainability is at the forefront of many of our minds, and it is clear that consumers are looking to businesses to play their part in helping to tackle climate change.
But how is the sector responding to these unprecedented times? And could steps being taken right now change the pharmaceutical industry forever?
Can pharma companies avoid Covid-19 medicine supply shortages?
Accelerating manufacturing output and maintaining supply chains to prevent a shortage of medical equipment has been a prevailing concern over the last few months.
The pharmaceutical industry relies heavily on China’s production of active pharmaceutical ingredient (API), with the nation being the world’s largest producer. Obviously, China’s factory closures caused concern for companies producing generic and branded drugs and medicines.
India, for example, imports 70% of API from China and is the world’s biggest supplier of generic medicine.
However, the impact of this hasn’t been as profound as initially feared and, for now, contingency plans appear to be holding up. The improving situation is also providing cause for optimism.
The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) doesn’t report ‘any concerns about shortages of medicines that relate to the loss of manufacturing capacity as a result of COVID–19 restrictions.’
Many companies have already made moves to split medication production between locations and most Chinese factories have now resumed production, albeit with some only operating between 50-80% capacity.
The reopening of factories may have occurred in time to prevent shortages given stockpiling and alternative supplies. For example, Amarin has a stockpile of Vascepa (a cardiovascular drug) to last 7 months, and other companies have taken similar steps.
In the UK, no-deal Brexit planning means the NHS has a reserve supply of drugs to prevent a shortage.
While there could be further disruptions to supply chains before the coronavirus pandemic has passed, in the short term at least it looks like manufacturing and supply will weather the storm.
How are pharmaceutical companies working together?
Pharmaceutical companies’ response to Covid-19 has been impressive to say the least.
Traditional rivalries between big pharma companies have been set aside, while trade groups, governments, academic institutions and foundations with pharmaceutical companies have rushed to form a strong, cohesive Covid-19 response force.
Such important and prestigious organisations working in collaboration will hopefully bring about shorter development times for treatments, vaccines and testing equipment.
Pfizer’s 5-point plan outlines the intentions of many of the big pharma companies. Of the 5 points, sharing tools and insights, applying drug development expertise and offering manufacturing capabilities are key and capture the spirit of collaboration.
Sharing proprietary compound libraries greatly increases companies’ access to the number of compounds with safety and activity data. The big pharma’s drug development expertise and large manufacturing capacities also offer smaller companies the ability to scale up their efforts.
Outside of big pharmaceutical companies, the support offered by the Gates Foundation is notable. Bill Gates has promised billions to build factories for the ‘most promising efforts’ in the search for therapies and vaccines against Covid-19 and coronavirus.
Also, the COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator set by the Gates Foundation, Wellcome and Mastercard is collaborating with pharmaceutical companies and screening their libraries for any effective compounds.
Ultimately, these collaborations provide a wider compound library to screen and gives the industry the support it needs to rapidly advance and ramp up the development and production of therapies and vaccines.
Covid-19 treatments, vaccines and diagnostic developments – what’s happened so far?
On top of the collaboration of pharmaceutical companies, there are an impressive number of industry and academic institution partnerships pushing for progress in Covid-19 treatments and vaccines.
At the end of March there were just under 400 clinical research trials for COVID-19 taking place across the world. By mid-April US a researcher for pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences said that nearly all patients trialling its new antiviral medication at the University of Chicago hospital were discharged within a week, bolstering hopes that the new drug could help towards easing lockdowns around the world.
AstraZeneca also announced a major breakthrough in fast tracking blood cancer drug Calquence into clinical trials for late-stage Covid-19 patients, where the mortality rate is 50%.
Current estimates for a vaccine coming to market stand at 12 to 18 months, drastically shorter than the usual development times for vaccines.
The rising number of companies taking different approaches is increasing the chance of success. ‘Two vaccines have already entered phase I clinical trials’ the European Medicines Agency (EMA) reported in their latest update at the end of March.
GSK, working with rival Sanofi, are on course to begin clinical trials for a vaccine this year, while many companies are pouring their energies into improving the availability and speed of testing.
How could the pharmaceutical industry change?
Covid-19 has served to bring the pharmaceutical industry together, and the rapid coordinated response could point to positive change for the future.
For instance, the pressure placed on manufacturing and supply chain could prompt companies to split production across different regions. Covid-19 has exposed the reliance on China and India as key producers of APIs and generic medicines.
The situation has also resulted in the industry’s big players ‘reaching out to build cross-industry rapid response teams of scientists, clinicians and technicians’ to fight future epidemics and pandemics.
Finally, it’s possible the industry may rethink drug development strategy. The extensive partnerships and collaborations have given companies, big and small, shared access to each other’s compound libraries.
If this spirit of collaboration outlives the coronavirus pandemic it could bring about an evolution of the industry in the years ahead.
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