The Pandemic Diaries
We ask medicine makers around the world to tell us how their professional and personal lives have changed over the course of the COVID-19 crisis. Featuring Simon Tyler at CatSci, Nick Shackley at Johnson Matthey, Chris Lowe at Horizon Discovery, and Andrew Bulpin at Merck.
Simon Tyler, Chief Operating Officer at CatSci
The pharma industry is very hands-on, so many people have been unable to work from home and must continue to go into the lab or manufacturing facility to carry out vital scientific research and development activities. Very early on, the industry had to get to grips with the types of issues now starting to be more widely considered across other industries as lockdown restrictions begin to ease in various countries. How do you maintain the same standards of operation within a laboratory environment in a safe manner? I’ve been humbled to observe, amongst the obvious heroism of front-line workers, the motivation of dedicated scientists who are continuing to undertake pharmaceutical R&D in the knowledge that it will one day contribute to the better treatment of, or help to defeat, the world’s evolving healthcare challenges. Scientists have also had to work against a backdrop of huge uncertainty shaped largely by two factors: government action (would there be mandated closure of laboratories?) and customer decisions (will they proceed with projects or postpone?).
With regards to the former, scientific advice has (fortunately) been at the forefront of this decision-making process and many labs, including ourselves, have been able to carry on with important projects focusing on the development of small molecule therapeutics, provided, of course, that appropriate health and safety measures are implemented. With respect to the latter, we have found that there is a clear distinction in the market between two schools of thought: those companies that wish to continue as near as possible, undeterred, and those that have applied the brakes to see what happens (fortuitously, our customers have been predominantly in the first category). There is no right or wrong approach, and all pharma companies must figure out what is the best course for their individual business. However, these are all real issues that both sponsors and service providers are facing with regards to progressing pharmaceutical projects in the current environment.
At the time of writing, we are some three months into the COVID-19 crisis and the mixture of feelings and emotions is starting to settle down into the working practices of the “new normal.” From an industry-wide perspective, there will no doubt be repercussions, but “business as usual” will continue to remain undefined for a while yet. We should all use this opportunity to focus on where we are truly adding value. We are certainly reflecting on that topic at CatSci. Perhaps COVID-19 will revolutionize our industry, ushering in a new era of doing business for good across the globe. Now that really would be something positive.
Nick Shackley, Global Vice President Innovator Products and Solutions, at Johnson Matthey
Our business has remained fully operational throughout the COVID crisis. Still, we have had to rethink the way we run our business to allow for social distancing, enhanced hygiene and increased security screening practices. It’s also the right thing for businesses to get involved on the community level too, such as contributing to local measures to help minimize the spread of the pandemic and help out where we can.
Looking at the pharma industry as a whole, supply chain vulnerabilities have been exposed as demand surges. Globally, there is a shortage of medicines used in intensive care units. An example specific to our business is narcotic analgesics, given to patients on ventilators. We are seeing the demand spike and challenges arising from cross-border complexities and long supply chain lead-times, which are very stressed. These vulnerabilities will need to be addressed in the future and will certainly raise questions around how the industry can be better prepared for future crises.
But there are also some very positive things that I’m seeing in the industry too. The broader life science and pharma industry have stepped up to develop solutions that can detect, treat and vaccinate against COVID-19. The pace at which the industry is introducing solutions, such as diagnostic tests, is largely enabled by purpose-led industry and good regulatory agency collaboration to reduce risk while enabling speed. We are excited to be partnered on several initiatives supporting development and manufacturing solutions related to COVID-19. As we learn to run faster, it will be interesting to see if we can more routinely apply these learnings to bring solutions to market quicker without the catalyst of a pandemic.
Chris Lowe, Head of Research Operations at Horizon Discovery
Our tools and services are used by those conducting COVID-19 research, so it has been vital that we continue to operate during these challenging and uncertain times! We’ve had to closely monitor our inventories and manufacturing capacity on a daily basis. And we’ve had to work closely with supply chain partners to maintain shipments around the globe. We’ve also looked at how else we can contribute to the crisis; for example, by introducing new licensing terms to facilitate rapid access to key platforms that can be used to develop or produce therapeutic proteins, diagnostic assay components and vaccines. And there are other things we can do outside of normal business. There has been a huge push from the scientific community to support medical workers on the front line. Our Cambridge site in the UK has responded to a local call for PPE by donating nitrile gloves to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, and diverted fruit and milk to staff there too. Admittedly, it is only a small contribution, but if all businesses do something meaningful, the contributions add up.
Throughout all of this, the health and safety of our employees has been and continues to be a priority. We’ve adapted to the situation by ensuring that there is only a minimum number of people on site at any given time. Most of our team are working from home and only come in to perform essential scientific lab work – with social distancing in place. We’ve also set up COVID-19 response teams at both our UK and US sites and will continue to review government advice and business practices.
Andrew Bulpin, Head of Process Solutions at the Life Science business of Merck
The pandemic is putting the spotlight on the immense need for problem solving. Those working on solutions to this global challenge must balance priorities to protect public health, operate safely despite disruption, and plan for recovery. During the COVID-19 response effort, life science companies and others are focusing on the health and safety of employees while ensuring that their technologies, products and services reach the customers around the world who rely on them. Meeting existing needs is only one part of the equation — anticipating additional needs is another. Alongside the push for vaccines and treatments, the scientists and researchers at work in this response effort need the learnings, resources and technology to combat such a virus. Innovation comes from collaboration.
We are monitoring the situation closely and have established protocols and guidelines to minimize the impact, whenever possible, to our employees, to our sites, and to our supply. Employees who can work from home are doing so, and for those employees who continue to develop, manufacture, package, and ship products or provide services at our sites, we have implemented workplace distancing precautions and staggered shifts. For customers, we’ve set up a dedicated COVID-19 webpage to help ensure availability keeps up with demand.
One positive is that collaboration to accelerate our response has already begun in earnest. We have convened our Innovation Board – R&D leaders, biologists, chemists, data scientists, and engineers from across the organization – to suggest and discuss ideas to resolve the outbreak. The group is working to assemble an open session with scientific experts to share knowledge and build scenarios dedicated to fighting the virus. With collaboration such as this, the global scientific community can potentially find a treatment.
Though it will certainly look different, we are optimistic for the future. The silver lining in this pandemic is that life science companies are moving with unprecedented velocity to support the development of tests, treatments and vaccines, in collaboration with suppliers. There are so many opportunities to work together, to speed up processes, and to reduce unnecessary systems to name just a few areas ripe for improvement. Most importantly, organizations will likely have more of a willingness to collaborate in the future for the greater good across the different fields in which they operate.