As the COVID-19 pandemic nears its second anniversary in North America, the medical industry is very different than it was just two years ago. Health and safety protocols have changed dramatically, economies continue to shift, and political tensions have escalated due to restrictions put in place to manage the virus.
The pandemic has also had a significant impact on the biopharmaceutical industry. From breakthroughs in artificial intelligence to home genetic testing, here are some of the ways COVID-19 has changed the industry and what we might see in the near future.
Disease prevention beyond COVID-19
The most obvious change is related to vaccines. The use of vaccines against COVID-19 has paved the way for new methods of manufacturing mRNA vaccines. Modern and the Pfizer–BioNTech the development team won a handset $30 billion in 2021and businesses are projected significantly increase this figure in 2022.
Not only are Moderna, Pfizer and BioNTech changing the game of vaccine manufacturing, they are also changing how they are distributed. In February 2022, Moderna announcement four new subsidiaries in Asia to source ingredients and rapidly manufacture more skincare products. BioNTech plans open one of the world’s largest mRNA manufacturing facilities in Africa to get more vaccines to countries like Ghana, Rwanda and Senegal.
Messenger RNA (mRNA) technology is also used to treat many other diseases. Using similar mRNA processes, pipelines are now working on vaccines for herpes simplex virus (HSV), varicella zoster virus to reduce rates of shingles, several types of cancers, cytomegalovirus for multiple sclerosis, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla has explained why he thinks mRNA vaccines are the future. “Obviously it’s a very powerful technology, and we have [been] just skimming the surface,” Bourla noted. “So we decided to go there because we also developed the expertise and the infrastructure that allows us to be a leading player.”
Reduce trips and encourage collaboration
Another way the pandemic is changing the biotech industry has to do with remote work. Life sciences is a unique field in that it involves many tasks that can only be done in a lab with employees physically present. Manufacturing components of the biotech supply chain also require onsite participation. However, when the pandemic hit, as many employees as possible were asked to work from home, and some will not be returning to the office.
Many biotechnology and biopharmaceutical companies are now embrace hybrid working environments. employers such as Athersys Inc., Biotherapeutic Bolt, Therapeutic Flexion, Aristea Therapeutic and Kyowa Kirin North America are just a few of the companies that have introduced flexible options for working from home. In addition to limiting the spread of COVID-19, some companies want to save money on installation costs with fewer employees on site. Some companies see hybrid work models as a way to stay competitive and recruit top talent, while others say it’s better for their employees’ work-life balance and mental health.
Employees still working on site have also experienced changes. Many businesses and industries as a whole are now more collaborative in the wake of the pandemic. For example, a Massachusetts-based aggregator iSpecimen offers biotechnology researchers and healthcare providers access to its database of biological samples. When the pandemic hit, iSpecimen helped gather research resources to support commercial and government entities in the study of Omicron and Delta variants.
Similarly, the British non-profit association Drug Discovery Catapult (MDC) has compiled COVID-19 resources and coordinated between researchers and laboratories across the UK. MDC employees helped companies complete fast-track applications for COVID grants. This too collaborated with several other companies.
MDC said its goal is to “combine excellence in drug discovery and protein science with innovative cellular microarray technology to uncover any unknown cellular receptors or COVID-19 binding proteins.”
The pandemic has also sparked new collaborative work initiatives in Africa. the World Health Organization at established an mRNA vaccine technology transfer center in South Africa. The hub, supported by WHO and its COVAX partners, will bring together publicly available information on mRNA vaccines. By collaborating with various manufacturers and researchers, the hub aims to help scale up the production of COVID-19 vaccines and then distribute those vaccines on the African continent.
The arrival of artificial intelligence
The use of artificial intelligence has also increased dramatically within the biotech industry. At the start of the pandemic, BioNTech partnered with Instadeep, an AI company based in Tunisia. Originally, Instadeep’s AI was used for language translation, but when COVID hit, BioNTech recognized the platform’s potential for modeling protein behavior.
BioNTech was able model proteins to find the optimal design for his mRNA vaccine, which dramatically reduced the time it would have taken to develop the vaccine otherwise. In November 2020, BioNTech extended its partnership with Instadeep to continue using AI for other vaccines in its pipeline.
Likewise, Guerix revolutionizes the use of AI in biotechnology. The company’s AI platform, called Healnet, sorts disease data to make meaningful connections, allowing researchers to predict connections between rare diseases and drugs that already exist. The Healnet AI platform has worked well so far, and in November 2021, Healx has received Approval of an Investigational New Drug (IND) by the United States Food and drug administration for a phase IIa study based on a drug-disease connection, the platform found.
Healx has 20 more internal diseases in its pipeline as its AI continues to refine.
A transition in testing
The pandemic has also transformed the biotech landscape with home testing. As people around the world rushed to find at-home COVID tests, companies started making their own. Everlywell, which makes diagnostic tests for food sensitivities, has developed its own PCR test for COVID-19. Then the company partnered with DoorDash to distribute the tests.
As a result, companies realized the potential home testing could have for other diseases. Companies that sell tests for everything from HIV to predictive cancer genetics has exploded in popularity. Since many non-essential health facilities were closed during the pandemic, the only testing option for many people was to order a take-out kit.
This revolution in diagnostic testing allows patients to have more flexibility when it comes to time and travel since they don’t have to go to an office. This is an option that has worked well with telehealth, according to at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Patients also avoid the social anxiety associated with testing for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections by using home testing instead.
As artificial intelligence and global collaboration continue to shape the course of the ongoing pandemic, the biotech industry has shown its adaptability time and time again. Biopharmaceutical companies have learned from COVID-19 to create new product pipelines and reach more patients than ever before. Although the pandemic has caused a massive loss of life, the resulting technologies and innovation could also save many lives in the future.