Sophia Ononye-Onyia outlines the key failings in the USA’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and why greater numbers of inter-industry partnerships and increased technological uptake are key to fighting this crisis and reframing the US life sciences industry of the future.
Imagine if we invested billions in epidemiological surveillance coupled with accelerated drug discovery mechanisms that facilitate real-time responses to disease outbreaks
Despite having the world’s largest defense budget, the US now has the highest number of coronavirus cases globally. This may be because there is a tendency for developed countries to see themselves as invincible, especially when it comes to infectious diseases. Consequently, it is evident that we have not proactively defended ourselves against the “invisible enemy” when it comes to public health, which ultimately dictates our overall well-being, productivity and profitability.
Ironically, there has been a strong investment focus on convenience-focused technologies such as self-driving cars and autonomous flying vehicles and less of a focus on digital health and other innovative health technology tools. Yet, the SpaceX Mission was recently cancelled because of COVID-19. At a valuation of roughly USD 36 billion, SpaceX is one of the most valuable private companies in the world and is spearheaded by lead investor, Elon Musk. Imagine if we invested billions in epidemiological surveillance coupled with accelerated drug discovery mechanisms that facilitate real-time responses to disease outbreaks.
Arguably, the biggest sin of omission is the lack of proper focus and investment in healthcare, particularly primary healthcare. The US Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) predicts that shortage of primary care providers (PCPs) will rise to include 72 percent of states by 2025. This shortage is quite unfortunate as PCPs provide first contact and continuing care for patients with undiagnosed symptoms and health concerns.
Healthcare affects every facet of our lives and it may take several months, if not years, for many industries to fully recover from the impact of COVID-19. The airline and hospitality industry is operating at record lows, millions are claiming unemployment benefits due to widespread, industry-agnostic layoffs and the future seems grim in many respects. Shortages of essential drugs and ventilators are widely reported while hospitals suffer from unexpected, systematic overload, all pointing to inadequate preparations.
Recent collaborations between the healthcare and technology industries showcase its interconnectedness, which of course begs the question why these partnerships are not already the norm. The more familiar we are with the use of these emerging technologies, the better we are able to maximize their use for the greater good of the public.
For example, Apple recently released a new COVID-19 app and website based on guidance from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is fairly reassuring for the approximate 100 million Americans who own iPhones. The Gates Foundation, Mastercard and the Wellcome team also announced the creation of an accelerator to speed up and increase access to COVID-19 treatments. This “COVID-19 Therapeutics Accelerator” will also involve several Big Pharma companies but once again, the surge of such important private-public partnerships exemplifies the impact of under prioritization of public health and the importance of proactivity in healthcare management and delivery.
It is also important to the inter-industry partnerships that were made prior to COVID-19 to enhance the drug discovery process, which is usually seen as the most inefficient stage of drug development, taking about five years on average. For instance, the global healthcare company, Novartis, partnered with Microsoft in late 2019 “to bring the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to the desktop of every Novartis associate” and “to tackle some of the hardest computational challenges within life sciences.” It is important to highlight that AI can potentially increase precision, accuracy, speed and yield of drug discovery through unique processes like identifying patterns and generating illuminating algorithms for Big Data.
Unfortunately, most large pharmaceutical companies, or “Big Pharma,” still rely on traditional, in-person clinical trials for patient recruitment, monitoring and data collection. However, these traditional trials have limited rapid response protocols and infrastructure that will enable seamless navigation of natural disasters and other unexpected catastrophes. As a result of COVID-19, many of these clinical trials have been halted, suspended or delayed, which limits global patient access to life-saving therapies.
Additionally, new regulations will need to be enacted in order to ensure sustainable, widespread change in the way we evaluate the clinical and economic value of a new drug, device or vaccine. In March 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provided guidance on the conduct of clinical trials during COVID-19 and essentially urged life science companies to switch to virtual patient visits instead of in-person monitoring for clinical studies.
Furthermore, the impact of COVID-19 on mental health should not be overlooked particularly since there are approximately 44 million Americans who experience mental health issues each year. Once again, it was uplifting when the FDA recently announced new policies aimed at expanding the availability of digital health therapeutic devices for the management of psychiatric disorders while reducing direct contact between users and healthcare providers during this pandemic.
Simply put, the entire world is currently on hold. Every single industry and human is somewhat affected by COVID-19 financially and psychosocially. The pharmaceutical industry remains largely the most hated industry in the US. There is no doubt that we missed the mark in 2020 as a global community with regard to emergency preparedness and proper disease containment and prevention.
All we can hope for is that the lessons we learn today will serve as a wakeup call for collaborations on innovative solutions for the healthcare industry especially the private, life science sector. One can only anticipate that the surge in intra and inter-industry collaborations within and outside the country can be sustained beyond COVID-19.
We have too much to lose and too many sophisticated tools to be left trapped and powerless by a so-called “invisible enemy” that continues to wreak havoc on a global scale.
Sophia Ononye-Onyia, PhD MPH MBA, is a Yale-trained molecular oncologist and founder & CEO of The Sophia Consulting Firm, a Brooklyn-based life science marketing and communications consultancy.