The BIO International Convention was held digitally in June 2020, bringing together over 7,000 participants from around the world. In an R&D-focused session titled “Whiplash! How Covid-19 Will Radically Change Biomedical R&D Across the Globe,” moderator Andy Marshall of Nature Biotechnology brought together experts in biotech, pharma innovation and research. While most participants spoke out against the way the US has managed the crisis, all expressed hope that through collaboration and innovation, the industry will adapt, strengthen its focus on diagnostics and digital, and prepare for the future.


Adapting to new focus areas


Many other companies are working on [a vaccine], and quite frankly, we should be rooting for all of them.

William Hait, Head of Global Innovation, Johnson & Johnson


Marshall called attention to some global trends impacting the biopharma industry, which include increasing digitization and globalization, accelerating technology, and increasing inequity which leads to an imbalance in access. Set against this backdrop, with the onset of COVID-19 companies are scrambling to adapt to the new situation and have had to shift priorities to support testing, diagnostics and vaccine development. 

Some participants noted how their firms are shifting their focus to bring digital technology to the US COVID-19 response. CEO Vicki Seyfert-Margolis explained how her company My Own Med is “building a mobile tech layer that involves symptom tracking, building algorithms allowing us to understand different symptomatic presentations that can be prioritised for testing.” Eric Topol of Scripps Research Institute noted how his work has shifted to supporting virus testing, “We’re using smartwatch and fitness band technology to measure heart rate. As many people don’t develop a fever, it can pick up asymptomatic and presymptomatic carriers.”

Karen Heichman of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spoke about the importance of diagnostics and how her work with the foundation is focused around this issue, “One of the things we’ve centred on in the short term is the issue around diagnostics, because it’s so important. There’s no substitute for good planning and preparedness. We’ve realized in the first few weeks of the epidemic the critical shortage of supplies related to collecting specimens for testing – the basics we all took for granted.”

Others such as William Hait, Head of Global External Innovation at Johnson & Johnson touched on the firm’s pivot to vaccine development, “We started with four possible candidates and we now have two scaling up. We are prepared to have a billion doses ready by the end of 2021. That’s making the assumption that our vaccine will be safe and effective. Many other companies are working on it, and quite frankly, we should be rooting for all of them.”


Digital and diagnostics are key


We need to think about durable manufacturing and scaling plans for diagnostics.

Karen Heichman, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation


Marshall moved the discussion to the topic of the intersection between digital and diagnostics, two areas where biopharma companies need to scale up and gain better proficiency in the fight against the pandemic. 

Jeremy Levin, CEO of Ovid Therapeutics argued that while the tools are important, “it requires an intent behind that to use it in an effective way. In order for digital diagnostics to have an effect in the US, you need to establish  an effective policy mechanism to ensure a national approach.”

Karen Heichman emphasized the need to “think about durable manufacturing and scaling plans for diagnostics, like we’re doing for vaccines and therapeutics. We need to think about alternative and scalable technologies and then build the manufacturing and supply chain around them.” Heichman suggested looking for inspiration from ultra-high throughput molecular technology in the agricultural industry down to the most basic, rapid point of care tests. 

William Hait agreed that the earlier the diagnosis, the better the outcome, and that “the differences are hugely cost-saving.” He went on to suggest that diagnostics should be part of “the cost of doing business for drug development,” citing Janssen Diagnostics as an example.


Hopes for 2021


The crisis we’re going through now is a unique opportunity to address significant needs, both in science and in society.

Jeremy Levin, CEO Ovid Therapeutics


Marshall brought the session to a close by asking participants to express what they hope to see a year from now in the biopharma industry. 

Johnsee Lee, chairman of Personal Genomics Inc as well as Taiwan Bio underscored the need for preparation and behaviour change, “We’ve talked about diagnostics and digital a lot, and those are mostly to address the containment and reduction of the impact of the pandemic. Eventually, we still need a vaccine, that’s the real solution; nevertheless, there’s a lot of uncertainty. Within 12 months, a sure thing everyone should try is to change our behaviour and get our infrastructure ready for when it comes back.” 

Eric Topol shared mixed sentiments of optimism and concern, “I think in the short term we’ll see fewer fatalities, the treatment will come along – whether that’s convalescent plasma, drugs, blocking the cytokine storm, and neutralizing antibodies – these all look promising for a vaccine. In the longer term, it looks promising that we can override the pandemic’s threat to humanity. The problem I have though – is the public going to take the vaccine? I worry we’ll take the scientific catapults and end up with a blockade.”

Jeremy Levin concluded with a strong call to continue collaboration and communication: “The primacy of science and the necessity of driving to truthful scientific admonition and communication is critical. The collaboration we’ve seen – if that continues, you’ll see a change in the industrial landscape, which I welcome. I believe that In one year’s time, the industry will shift its focus away from where 50 percent of investment was purely oncology, to a more focused and distributed set of investments into different technology and capabilities that go beyond any one disease area.  I’m hopeful that in one year from now, we in America, at a terrible price of over 100,000 dead, we’ll be in a situation in which we as a nation have a much more robust approach. The crisis we’re going through now is a unique opportunity to address significant needs, both in science and in society.”