Takeda predicts that climate change will help its Zika and dengue fever vaccines find a larger market. Roche says it could ultimately make it attractive for the company to develop treatments for diseases like malaria. And AbbVie says extreme weather events might boost its immunology products.

But the potential risks of climate change — and the attendant increase in natural disasters — stand to outstrip any of those incremental gains, as the companies described in recent risk assessment reports to the British nonprofit CDP.

Hurricanes and superstorms, power outages and flooding all threaten manufacturing facilities and research sites, particularly when animals are involved. Droughts, too, threaten critical water supplies. Forest fires, even if remote from a given plant or research facility, bring smoke and air pollution that can similarly disrupt the day-to-day work for drug makers and their supply chain.

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Geography doesn’t help, either. The biotech and pharmaceutical industries — concentrated, as they are, in coastal areas like Boston, New Jersey, and California — may face higher risks for extreme weather events.

STAT surveyed the risk assessment plans for more than a dozen major pharmaceutical companies and spoke with officials at labs that survived extreme weather events and others who are planning to avoid their repercussions. All emphasized that the risks are already real — and underscored how hard the industry is working to prepare to meet the challenge.

“You really start to need to ask yourself and sort of reverse-engineer — what are you at risk to, what can you tolerate as a community, as an asset or a structure,” said William Sweet, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, speaking specifically about the impact of even a small rise in sea level in places prone to flooding. “Vulnerabilities that are exposed by today’s events, it’s important to document because those likely are going to be the same area that get exposed and are vulnerable.”

In the last five years alone, extreme weather has caused massive disruptions in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. Hurricanes and flooding can wipe out research and manufacturing facilities, smoke and air pollution from forest fires threaten experiments and lab animals — as do frigid temperatures and power outages. And the gradual rise in average temperatures have some concerned that plants and animals that serve as sources of existing and potential new drugs may vanish.

Pfizer, for example, estimates it lost $195 million in inventory and overhead when three Puerto Rico manufacturing facilities were wiped out by the recent devastating hurricane season. Eli Lilly ran its Puerto Rico facility with emergency diesel generators “for months” after the storm.

For some, Hurricane Maria was a wake-up call. To AstraZeneca, the storm “showed the site was not resilient enough.” The company is planning to invest more in weatherproof buildings “for current and future conditions.” AbbVie spent a few thousand dollars securing the roofs on its manufacturing plants on the island.

Wildfires, too, can have an extreme impact — even if they occur further afield. For more than a week in November, wildfires in California sent enough small particles into the air that it became “unhealthy” for residents to breathe without filters — and could have damaged the air filters that research labs do use.

“The R&D that fuels innovative activity in life sciences companies requires conditions that are tightly controlled, particularly when it comes to air quality, temperature, and other climate settings,” said Will Zasadny, the California Life Sciences Association’s communications director. In addition to issues around the power grid and the impact the fires had on employees, he said, “wildfire smoke is damaging on air filtration systems.”

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Recent experiences at two research facilities — one in New York and one in Texas — also help illustrate the potential pitfalls for earlier-stage life science research — as well as the promise for facilities that prepare for extreme weather in advance.

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, some of the facilities at NYU Langone, an academic medical center with a hospital and research facilities, flooded and lost power — including two of its animal care facilities. As some scientists carried out temperature-sensitive samples in bins filled with dry ice, others delivered water to the center’s aquariums and evacuated the mice and rats that they could.

Not all of the research animals made it out. According to a National Academies of Science report on disaster resilience, 35,000 mice — which represented about $25 million and about one-third of the system’s total mouse population — died.

“In a way, the public are the ones who lost,” said Jennifer Pullium, the director of NYU Langone’s division of laboratory animal resources. “The purpose of these animals is for biomedical research — to improve the quality of life and health of people. When progress is set back, progress for people is set back.”

Like many places affected by a disaster, NYU Langone planned to rebuild itself without the same soft spots. That meant installing new flood barricades and moving critical things like generators and computers up to higher floors — but also making non-flood related modifications, like making sure the system’s hospitals had air conditioners hooked up to the emergency power network.

“Something like [Sandy] really does help crystallize and motivate a lot of action and a lot of thinking that wouldn’t happen otherwise,” said Paul Schwabacher, NYU Langone’s senior vice president of facilities management. “It did allow us to make a lot of changes and improve things beyond what we’d been planning at the time.”

Langone’s new defenses haven’t been tested yet. But Baylor College of Medicine’s response to 2017’s Hurricane Harvey shows that good preparation should pay off.

The college lost thousands of research animals in Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 — and spent $35 million afterward on better flood defenses, including food gates and pumps.

When Hurricane Harvey hit in 2017 — a Category 4 hurricane that was one of the costliest Atlantic storms ever — the college was ready. Baylor had a “ride out” team of 52 people, including some dedicated to taking care of the medical school’s 100,000 animals while the campus was flooded. None died.

Most of the major biotech and pharmaceutical companies have been preparing for climate change for years.

Johnson & Johnson and Novo Nordisk scored an A rating from CDP; Sanofi, Pfizer, Roche, Novartis, Merck, Eli Lilly, Takeda, and Biogen all scored an A minus. GlaxoSmithKline and AbbVie earned B ratings, and Amgen and Bristol-Myers Squibb got C’s. The ratings are based on the company’s awareness and management of climate change issues.

The size and type of their investments in those preparations vary.

Johnson & Johnson, for example, wrote in its report that it underwent a full-blown review of its water scarcity activities after a drought affected its facilities in Cape Town, South Africa. Biogen poured $500,000 into new software to monitor its supply chain after hurricanes and storms affected two of its major locations. Amgen highlighted its efforts to reduce water use, spotlighting a facility that now reuses about 74 percent of the treated wastewater it generates to cool its manufacturing equipment.

In Cambridge, Mass.’s legendary Kendall Square, one local real estate developer has already worked to ensure that a third of the facilities it manages there are prepared for extreme weather events all the way up through 2050 or further.

Those preparations are necessary in part because of where Kendall Square sits. A short walk from the Charles River, the biotech hub already faces a small flood risk from major storms. According to a recent city report, new issues may start to crop up soon. By 2050, the water around Boston should be a foot or two higher than it was in 2000 — so high that the city’s report on climate change vulnerability says the dams that separate the rivers around the city from Massachusetts Bay would be pretty useless.

If a once-in-a-decade storm hits, winds might blow the water up from the pond or river — a storm surge — or water might come back up from drainage pipes.

Alexandria Real Estate has over 4.3 million square feet of office space in Kendall Square. That includes at least 1.9 million square feet of brand-new space built with climate change in mind.

Gone are basement electrical rooms and data centers — they’ve been moved up to the first floor. Thresholds for first-floor doors, too, are all above the point the city’s reports suggest water might ultimately rise if a major storm hits after the sea levels around the city have risen by a foot or two. Yet the real estate company’s not-inconsiderable power mostly stops at the thresholds of their own buildings. The company can’t stop a street from flooding or make sure the city’s drains won’t become overwhelmed with stormwater. Developers in Kendall have tried; among other things, Alexandria and others have paid for a new stormwater drain that can take up to 630,000 gallons of stormwater.

One thing that Alexandria and others can do — and have done — is ensure that their buildings won’t make flooding worse. Some Alexandria-owned buildings have equipment on the roofs that can store stormwater for a while before its released — slowly — to the street; each site also has a system in place to encourage rain to drain into the ground first, not into the streets. And specialized valves prevent sewer backups from bringing that water into a building. (Even the toilets will still work without adding to the sewer’s problems, at least for a day.)

“We’re confident that our tenants and our properties here in Kendall Square are well-protected from climate change vulnerabilities like flooding,” Andrews said.

There are less tangible risks to consider, too: the prospect that if a company’s approach to climate change is too timid, it could be harder to recruit talented employees in an industry where sterling job applicants often have the upper hand.

“As a science-based company focused on improving the quality of life, stakeholders may set expectations related to Biogen’s efforts towards climate change,” the company stated — adding that if they fail to meet those expectations, potential employees may go elsewhere. “Loss of highly-qualified employees to competitors due to falling short of expectations could place Biogen’s research and development efforts at risk.”

Merck’s report puts a more positive spin on the issue. “We recognize that our policies and actions around social and environmental issues such as our carbon footprint can help attract and attain talent,” the company wrote.

Yet to some, one industry alone can’t make up for a broader failure to act.

“It would seem that, you know, as a nation, we should be doing much more to try to mitigate these risks. They’re just tremendous, and I don’t think we’ve reflected on the cost of climate change and other risks that are coming,” said NYU’s Schwabacher.

“We could be doing more — should be doing more.”

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  • The author is calling it “gains” that more people will be infected with Zika, dengue fever & malaria. What a horrible way of framing the situation.

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