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Biotech and Coronavirus: the challenge of global collaboration

Les biotechs et le Coronavirus. Pourquoi asseoir une collaboration internationale ?
Published on
15 September 2020

The global Coronavirus epidemic highlighted several strategic stakes for the biotech and pharmaceutical industry. How is the biotech industry handling this crisis? How quick was the industry to react in terms of developing treatments and vaccinations? We speak with Mark Chanel, who teaches competitive intelligence and is in charge of the Advanced Master’s in Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Management (GEM Paris campus).

What's your analysis of the biotech sector's response to the Covid-19 crisis in France and abroad?

First, we have to distinguish between two types of biotech companies: small companies and innovative startups versus major pharmaceutical companies ("big pharma"). Small biotech companies garnered a lot of interest and investment, in particular if they have promising technology for the development of vaccinations. This group emerged from the crisis with a strong position.

Big pharma includes major companies such as GSK, AstraZeneca, Sanofi, Pfizer and Bayer. During the Covid-19 crisis, these companies were able to set up partnerships with both investors and governments in order to mitigate risks. As a result, European governments have worked together to create a vaccination and share risk. The US government already placed an order with Pfizer and the Chinese government is investing in leading pharmaceutical companies.

What are the primary challenges for the sector?

The pharmaceutical sector is based on long term developments. R&D can require 20 years in order to develop new molecules. And less than 10% of these molecules are then used for clinical trials. With the Covid-19 crisis, speed has become essential. Companies are producing molecules without knowing yet if they will be successful. Pfizer has invested more than 1 billion dollars to produce up to 100 millions doses this year. If their vaccination is not efficient for the Coronavirus, it will be a loss and the risk is high. Russia has already approved a vaccination and will launch production in Septembre and inoculation country-wide in October. However, it is worrisome to see that there is little information about their clinical trials.

How has the biotech model been transformed by this crisis? What are the primary difficulties? Notably, there are questions about relocalisation plans for molecule production and basic materials for items like masks.

Molecules with a high added value are not at risk of delocalisation. But it is true that 80% of medicine, including generic molecules are produced in China. It's for this reason that countries like France have felt vulnerable during the crisis and are discussing a possible relocalisation of production lines. However, this is not an efficient model. Of course France could produce important molecules in-country with the help of 10 or 20 suppliers. The US for example recently offered a 765 million loan to the Kodak company to produce pharmaceutical components on American soil.

The question is whether or not this is efficient for treatment with patents that are now part of the public domain. By imposing a security-oriented strategy, countries create multiple inefficiencies and redundancies in the supply chain. The best solution is to increase collaboration between countries in particular in Europe, China and the US.

What R&D advances are you aware of in terms of treatment and vaccination for the Covid-19 crisis?

The German company, BioNTech, which is a very small medtech company, has developed promising, new technology: "ARN Messenger". Pfizer and BioNTech are collaborating on this new project that could create a disruptive innovation for the production of vaccinations. The hopes and belief in this technology has enabled BioNTech's stock share to increase from 16.5 dollars in Nov. 2019 to more than 100 dollars in July 2020. Production, which is the primary cost, is expected to be launched with Pfizer in August 2020. The US Food and Drug Administration should give market approval in October. However if the technology ends up not being efficient, losses could be enormous.

What lessons can the biotech and pharmaceutical sector draw from this crisis?

Over the next 5 to 10 years, the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the biotech sector will be major. We can see that young scientists and researchers, as well as investors and governments, have renewed their interest in this sector. It's a context that reminds me of the space race between the US and the USSR during the 50s, 60s and 70s. Global interest created a surge in technological advances and fostered the development of numerous sectors such as IT and digital tech. The same could happen for the biotech sector with strong competition in a race to become the leader ready to fight the next epidemic. Without a doubt, collaboration will have to increase between China, the US and Europe. In the context of a global epidemic, an "every man for himself" strategy will be unsuccessful.

Advanced Master's in Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Management

The Advanced Master's in Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Management is delivered by Grenoble Ecole de Management and provides a post-master's level certificate recognized by the Conférence des Grandes Ecoles, which guarantees the program's academic excellence and professional relevance. It is aimed at doctors, pharmacists, engineers and life sciences doctors.
This multicultural, multidisciplinary program targets life science industry needs and enables participants to highlight a dual-skill set in science and business for the management of biotech and pharmaceutical companies. "This program enables participants to develop the skills required to efficiently manage operations in this sector while becoming a leader in a field of expertise. It's an excellent opportunity to develop one's professional network in a dynamic learning environment," highlights Mark Chanel.
The program is organized as a 15 month work/study format in partnership with a French company. Theoretical knowledge is taught in English at the GEM Paris Campus. The program also includes an international study trip built around a network of experts and lecturers for the pharmaceutical industry. 81 students are already signed up for the 2020/2021 session, which will begin in Paris on November 9 and run until December 2021.

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