Therapeutics Innovation in a Pandemic Era

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Biopharmaceutical companies have demonstrated a rapid and powerful response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with innovators leading the way. A rush of investor money has been pouring into companies with the best odds of making it to the vaccine finish line. But such heavy investments in one sector lead some industry experts to wonder about the financial support of research into cure pathways for other serious diseases such as cancer, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease. When the pandemic abates with vaccines and optimal treatments in place, other diseases still will be robbing patients’ lives and diminishing their quality of life. How bumpy is the road for biopharmaceutical developers working on breakthroughs for non-COVID-19 diseases? Below, I’ve outlined what such companies are wrestling with during this time.

Access to Capital: According to the BioCentury’s BCIQ database, US$18.8 billion was raised in 2019 for global biotechnology ventures, up from $17 billion in 2018. Although there’s been a fear of a slowdown in venture financing, that fear has been largely unfounded. According to BioCentury, “Fundraising in Q1 2020 is on par with previous quarters, with $5.71 billion raised, compared with the quarterly average of $5.93 billion in 2019, from 160 financings, compared with an average of 162 financings per quarter last year” (1). Although significant capital is being raised for pandemic-related ventures, biotechnology companies outside that spectrum also are being funded. However, for companies that are trying to raise their first round, connecting with investors and making introductions over a Zoom call can be a difficult way to build trust.

Trials and Tribulations of Clinical Trials: According to BioPharma Dive (2) nearly 100 companies and 240 clinical studies have experienced disruptions since March 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic also threatens to set back non-COVID-19 clinical research by several years, which could stall progress on experimental medicines for other diseases.

Several companies currently initiating phase 1 clinical trials for non-COVID-19 diseases in the United States are facing delays because clinics and hospitals that conduct such trials are prioritizing COVID-19–related activities. Fortunately, some companies that focus on research in other diseases are considering the possibility of conducting phase 1 trials in countries not so afflicted by the pandemic (e.g., Canada and Australia). The pandemic highlights the advantage for study decentralization in the face of a crisis.

Phase 2 trials are coordinated with hospitals and medical centers, many of which are currently focused on pandemic-related treatments. That has led to major delays for biotechnology companies that are also in phase 2 trials but with non-COVID-19 drug candidates. The most affected companies have therapies that are nonurgent but important for quality of life and long-term health. In the current environment, patients are choosing not to visit hospitals for elective and preventative treatments, which limits access to subjects for clinical trials.

Discovery Stage Companies Are Affected: Not all biotechnology companies have progressed their research to clinical trials. Studies at the preclinical stage are conducted in laboratories. In regions where lockdowns and other restrictions were in place in early 2020, many laboratories put their work on hold while they learned how to manage social distancing protocols. Although most laboratories now are back to work, not all of them are working at full capacity. And some nonpandemic researchers are having difficulties accessing their studies because their laboratories share space with researchers working on COVID-19 treatments.

Biotechnology Is Ready for Its Close-Up: People around the world are turning to biopharmaceutical innovators for solutions to the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a growing respect for the industry. As effective vaccines become available, “the perceptions of the pharmaceutical and life sciences industry are positioned to shift dramatically from near the bottom of favorability polls currently to much higher. That will impact policymaking, industry communications, and beyond” (3).

COVID-19 is demonstrating the importance of the biotechnology industry. The production of life-saving technologies will prepare us for future diseases with a renewed focus on cure pathways. As the world moves toward normality, many emerging biotech companies that have not pivoted to focus on the pandemic are weathering the storm with therapeutic innovations on the horizon. For those of us lucky enough to work in biotechnology, our work is far more than just a job. We are working on solutions to give human beings longer and healthier lives.

References
1 Martz L. Investors Are Still Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop on a Slowdown in Deal Flow. BioCentury 22 April 2020; https://www.biocentury.com/article/304948/investors-are-still-waiting-for-the-other-shoe-to-drop-on-a-slowdown-in-deal-flow.

2 Fidler B. A Guide to Clinical Trials Disrupted By the Coronavirus Pandemic. BioPharma Dive 15 May 2020; https://www.biopharmadive.com/news/coronavirus-clinical-trial-disruption-biotech-pharma/574609.

3 State of Possible 2025. Mass Bio, June 2020; https://www.massbio.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/MassBio_State-of-Possible-2025-Report_FINAL-6-25-20.pdf.

Paul Brennan is president and chief executive officer at NervGen Pharma Corp.; pbrennan@nervgen.com.

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