Therapeutics Innovation in the Era of a Pandemic

Published on December 23, 2020

Pharma and biotech companies have demonstrated a rapid and powerful response to the COVID-19 pandemic with biopharmaceutical innovators leading the charge in the fight. A rush of investor money is placing bets on biotech companies with the best odds of making it to the vaccine finish line. What’s the impact on biotech companies researching for cure pathways for other serious diseases, such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and more?

When the pandemic abates, with vaccines and optimal care treatments in place, other diseases will still be robbing lives and diminishing people’s quality of life. How bumpy is the road for biotech companies working on breakthroughs for non-COVID-19 diseases? Here’s what biotech companies are wrestling with during this challenging time:

Access to Capital

Global biotech ventures raised $18.8 billion in 2019, which was up from $17 billion in 2018, according to BioCentury’s BCIQ database. While there’s been a fear of a slowdown in venture financing, according to BioCentury, that fear has been largely unfounded as “fund-raising in 1Q20 is on par with previous quarters, with $5.71 billion raised, compared with the quarterly average of $5.93 billion in 2019, from 160 financings, compared with an average of 162 financings per quarter last year.

While we can estimate that significant capital is being raised for pandemic-related ventures, biotech companies outside of this spectrum are also being funded. However, it must be very difficult for companies that are trying to raise their first round. Connecting with investors over a Zoom call works well if you are already acquainted, but for first-time introductions the ‘virtual’ dynamic makes it very difficult to build trust and relationships.

Trials and Tribulations of Clinical Trials

According to BioPharmaDive, since March 2020, nearly 100 companies and 240 trials have experienced disruptions. As such, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to set back non-COVID-19 clinical trial research several years which could result in stalled progress on experimental medicines for other diseases. 

Phase I studies of a new drug generally involve healthy people and look to find the highest dose of the new treatment that can be given safely without causing severe side effects. Currently, several companies initiating their a Phase 1 non-pandemic related trials in the U.S. are being delayed as the clinics and supporting hospitals that conduct Phase 1 trials are prioritizing treating patients with COVID-19. Fortunately, there are some promising alternatives. Companies engaged in Phase 1 trials are starting to get creative and looking into other countries not as afflicted by the pandemic, such as Canada and Australia. The pandemic highlights the advantage for study decentralization in the face of a crisis.

Phase 2 studies focus test treatments that have been found to be safe in Phase I but now need a larger group of human subjects to assess efficacy and side effects. As Phase 2 trials are coordinated with hospitals and medical centers, many of which are focused on pandemic-related treatments, there have been major delays for biotech companies in this phase of study. The hardest hit category of therapeutics is for non-urgent therapies, but that are still important for quality of life and long-term health. In the current environment, patients are just not visiting hospitals for elective and preventative treatments, and as such the access to these patients for clinical trials is limited.

Discovery Stage Companies are Also Affected

Not all biotech companies have progressed their research to clinical trials, and for these companies most of their research is conducted in labs. For the first couple of months after the lockdown, most lab work was put on hold while the companies or their vendors learned how to manage their social distancing protocols. Whilst many labs are now back to work, many are not yet working to full capacity, and in some cases non-COVID-19 researchers are having a difficult time getting access to their studies when the labs share space with pandemic researchers.

Biotech is Ready for Its Close-up

As people around the world are turning to biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies for solutions for the COVID-19 pandemic, there is renewed respect for the sector. If an effective vaccine becomes available, “the perception of the pharmaceutical and life sciences industry is positioned to shift dramatically from near the bottom of favorability polls currently to much higher. This will impact policymaking, industry communications, and beyond,” reads the State of Possible 2025 Report from MassBio

COVID-19 is demonstrating the importance of the biotechnology sector to society, as even anti-vaccine protestors are humbled by the advent of an earth-shaking pandemic. A respect for the production of life-saving technologies will translate to our world being more prepared for future new diseases with a renewed focus on cure pathways for uncured diseases.

As countries move toward normalcy, many emerging biotech companies who have not pivoted to focus on the pandemic, are weathering the storm with therapeutic innovations on the horizon. For those of us lucky enough to work in biotech, our work is far more than just a job. We are working on solutions to help humankind live longer and healthier. 

Paul Brennan is a Grit Daily contributor and president/CEO of NervGen Pharma Corp., a biotech company dedicated to creating innovative solutions for the treatment of nerve damage and neurodegenerative diseases.

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