By Conor McKechnie, VP Strategy and Marketing, Cytiva
With the biopharma industry’s remarkable response under intense scrutiny and pressure to the Covid-19 pandemic, people are naturally looking at how to secure a global response to similar future crises as well as modern biological medicines in general. The natural assumption is that the challenges are most acute in policy making and hard science. While partly true, new industry research says access to talent is the most urgent challenge, especially outside high-income economies such as the US and Europe.
The global biotechnology community has shown the world that it can deliver both vaccines and therapies in a global emergency at speed. The extraordinary, shortened timelines have stressed the system, however, and it is not over yet. Very real production and fair distribution challenges remain, there are open political spats about access to vaccines and therapies, and all the while, our foe is mutating. We know, as was true for SARS-CoV-2, that the next pandemic is a ‘when’, not an ‘if’. So how should countries and the global industry build resilience?
Cytiva’s Global Biopharma Resilience Index, compiled with Financial Times company Longitude, tracks the resilience of the biopharma ecosystem in 20 countries. The intent is to help industry, researchers, governments and policy makers understand countries’ vulnerabilities and how they could strengthen responses to stresses such as the current pandemic and their rapidly evolving needs for biotherapeutics in general.
If what we learned in 2020 now enables permanent shortening of vaccine development times, domestic manufacturing will be key to ensuring the lower- and middle-income countries can reduce their dependence on complex global biopharmaceutical supply chains. While advanced economies such Australia and the UK pursue their “Medical Products National Manufacturing Priority road map1, and “Medicines and Diagnostic Manufacturing Transformation Fund”2, respectively, both aimed at reducing dependence on foreign supply chains, it is lower- and middle-income countries that are faring worst.
Inequality in access to vaccines is not just a question of what is morally fair. Wealthy countries that have secured doses far in excess of that required to vaccinate their own populations must understand that inequity in access threatens to prolong pandemics, creates global risks of new variants, costs more lives and slows global economic recovery3, 4 . In the case of SARS-COV2 it is distribution that matters now, but for future pandemics, which will come, we have an opportunity to secure faster, more effective global vaccination, and subsequently quicker end-games through investment in and development of local manufacturing capacity in LMICs. Securing this is part policy, part infrastructure, all collaboration, and overwhelmingly about talent.
The Southern African Development Community (SADC) and others have highlighted the need “to enhance manufacturing capabilities through building a strong portfolio in pharmaceuticals”5, 6 , and while efforts to build local medicine manufacturing show early results, Africa still imports 99% of its vaccines. Local biologics manufacturing at a scale is a long way off.7 Our research shows that one of the biggest challenges to domestic manufacturing is not the deployment of manufacturing capacity, as good as factories may look for the press and public. It is the lack of affordable access to the right domestic talent to build, transfer technology into and run those facilities that shines through as our industry’s weakest link.
This is reflected by respondents across all 20 countries surveyed, but the lack of local talent in a highly specialized industry such as biopharmaceutical manufacturing is a more difficult challenge for poorer countries. The very power of global advanced economy biotech hubs such as the UK’s “golden triangle” and Massachusetts and the San Francisco Bay Area in the US to lure and concentrate talent and drive progress is undermining the efforts of lower- and middle-income countries to improve their domestic capabilities. Couple that with the explosion of demand for “digital” talent in almost all industries, let alone biotech, local efforts in poorer countries simply cannot compete with the large multinationals and exciting venture-backed start-ups in wealthy economies. The market is global, and major hubs are pulling people away from places that need them most.
Manufacturing biologics is a multi-disciplinary effort, and this is why brain drain to affluent biotech hubs can be especially damaging. It is not enough to have an outstanding pool of bio-scientists. Materials science, biology, data science, automation and engineering are among the diverse critical disciplines in a successful local biopharma industry. And it is a multi-disciplinary approach built on strong STEM education and encouraging graduates into the right specialisms that will help countries build and retain the talent needed. It must be supported by strong policy and regulation, as well as incentives for diasporas to return and wealthy countries to invest. Only then will we make meaningful progress towards equitable access to life-saving medicines that transform human health.
The Cytiva Biopharma Resilience Index research was conducted by Cytiva and Longitude in late 2020. To learn more, visit cytiva.com/resilience.