How COVID-19 has shed light on importance of biotech tools, health equity

By Samantha Black, PhD, ScienceBoard editor in chief

January 11, 2022 -- As the world enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that the virus has taught humanity some very tough lessons, but there have also been significant scientific advances. A panel explored the current challenges facing the industry, along with the silver linings, on January 10 at Biotech Showcase 2022.

"Beyond the COVID-19 Crisis: What We Learned in Record Time and How It Will Advance the Future," a plenary session at Biotech Showcase 2022, was moderated by Jeremy Abbate, the vice president and publisher of Scientific American. The panel comprised a diverse mix of industry leaders.

Science gives back

In a way, the pandemic was a perfect storm waiting to happen -- the rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics would not have been possible without the biotechnology tools that enable innovation. While these tools are not new, with many under development for years (if not decades), their implementation has traditionally been met with resistance from public health authorities, regulators, and -- to a certain extent -- drug developers. Until the pandemic, these tools were relatively untapped.

However, the global crisis offered an opportunity for the industry, driven by the necessity to provide critical health solutions, stated Michael Brooks, chief development officer and global head of clinical development solutions at Syneos Health.

Indeed, technology has been essential to the COVID-19 healthcare response. It is an unfortunate reality that while biotech innovations provide new ways to save lives, biotech companies are demonized for costs associated with creating those innovations.

This challenge requires a reimagining of the way society thinks about health innovations, said Dr. Michelle McMurry-Heath, PhD, president and CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. To realize the full lifesaving potential of these medicines and technologies, they must be considered as tools of health, McMurry-Heath said.

In an ideal world, innovation should be rewarded and reimbursed appropriately to promote additional innovation, commented Rick Bright, PhD, CEO of the Pandemic Prevention Institute and senior vice president of the Pandemic Prevention and Response, Health Initiative, at The Rockefeller Foundation.

What is preventing innovation?

There was consensus among the panelists that a major limiting factor to the implementation of innovation in healthcare is data. In the case of the pandemic, data is what allowed the world to move from a panic-driven response to a science-driven response, Bright stated.

Medical decision-making is only as strong as the data that supports it, Bright said, and there are many failings in the current way that data is collected, shared, and analyzed. There was significant progress in the scientific community utilizing prepublication servers such as BioRxiv and viral genome sequence submissions to the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenze Data (GISAID) database, which has surpassed nearly 7 million submissions.

However, the industry is still stymied by things like slow data collection, data hoarding on a national and regional level, and inequities in data collection. The panel called for centralizing healthcare data and using real-world representative data to shape how products can be used in larger populations.

Will health become more equitable?

For health to become more equitable, "science has to be a tool of social justice," McMurry-Heath explained. The most important data comes from diverse populations, she said, and that data is what is needed to make important healthcare policy decisions.

The first step to achieving this goal is improved science education and communications, along with increased access to information. While this seems like a difficult feat, education is essential in equipping individuals with the tools needed to ask informed questions, Mara Aspinall, managing director of Health Catalysts Group, said. On a larger scale, the ability to communicate clearly and in more diverse ways can allow health technologies and tools to be implemented into the everyday lives of individuals around the globe.

While these are long-term goals, Brooks said, COVID-19 has offered the scientific and healthcare communities a special opportunity to create a new narrative with the public. The world has seen more innovation and a greater willingness to strive for equality than ever before. It is an exciting time, and we must maintain the enthusiasm for innovation and keep the momentum for progress moving forward.

Do you have a unique perspective on your research related to biotech finance and innovation? Contact the editor today to learn more.

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