What can the pharmaceutical industry do to ensure it’s ready for a future pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched healthcare suppliers, organisations, governments and medical professionals to their very limits, locking down the world like never before, reports Vladimir Tkachenko, General Manager, Amaxa Pharma

Healthcare industries, which were already under huge strain across the world, have been placed under unprecedented pressure. But, as the saying goes, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel and we’re beginning to see positive signs.

Although there is still a threat of a second wave on the horizon, deaths and infection rates are declining and the recent discovery of dexamethasone as a viable treatment for the sickest patients has been greeted with enthusiasm by the scientific community. Similarly, Oxford University appears to be making some progress on the vaccine front, with a developed drug that’s safe and triggers an immune response.

With such a focus on drug development and also on searching for existing drugs that can help the fight against COVID-19, the pharmaceutical industry has been central and will continue to play a leading role in the months to come.

vUndoubtedly, the way we have approached this pandemic will become a case study that will inspire our response to future global disease outbreaks. So, with this in mind, what are the lessons that can be learnt to ensure that the pharmaceutical industry can respond quickly and definitively to the next pandemic? The answers are many … but finding them will be key to saving lives.

Applying unique approaches to a unique virus

Scientists and pharmaceutical experts have faced a myriad challenges, as is to be expected from COVID-19’s status as a novel coronavirus. Although similar in ways to the viruses that caused the SARS outbreak of 2002–2004 and the MERS outbreak that began in 2012, COVID-19 has proven to be much more transmissible, with its presence in the vast majority of countries now confirmed.

Essentially, those charged with coming up with effective treatments or a vaccine have had to start from scratch while contending with the various restrictions brought about by global lockdowns. Combined with a growing sense of panic amongst the general public and the subsequent need to move at breakneck pace to reach a solution, it is fair to say that times have been tough.

However, there have been a number of success stories that underline the vital work that the pharmaceutical industry does … and it is these that should serve as examples of how to approach the future.

Vladimir Tkachenko

Speed and collaboration are key

The scientific community has come together to discover ways to protect against the virus at a speed never seen in our lifetimes. Having originated in China, much of the essential groundwork was also completed by the Chinese, ensuring the rest of the world at least had some degree of preparedness before the virus reached their shores.

The pace of developments since then has been relentless. Teams around the world are working furiously to develop an effective vaccine, with promising results seen already.

As far as viable treatments are concerned, the evidence of remdesivir to reduce patient recovery times shows significant promise, and the discovery of dexamethasone — an affordable, widely available steroid in use since the 1960s — in improving survival rates has led to the UK government approving it for immediate use.

The bottom line here is that speed and collaboration have been hugely beneficial in turning the tide against COVID-19 and will continue to be so in the ongoing battle. Any future pandemic will only be successfully beaten if pharmaceutical companies, experts, scientists and governments are willing to spring into action and work together for the common good.

Analysing big data

Data gathering and analysis has grown in importance in recent years for all businesses, aiding everything from customer interactions to HR functions. For a company in the retail sector, for example, unifying a range of disparate datasets and drawing insight from them can give an organisation that all-important competitive advantage.

The situation is no different for the pharmaceutical industry: when it comes to identifying the right treatments and approaches in a future pandemic, data will play a leading role.

Of course, data already provides the basis for the treatment of many diseases. Before a new medicine is approved for use, huge amounts of data from clinical studies will be examined and compared before a final decision is made.

However, there is more we can do to make data analytics processes stronger. When independent studies on a particular drug are done in one country, experts in other nations may be unaware that these studies exist if they do not have the ability to find and process vast amounts of data.

This is when emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will make their mark. By automating data analytics and applying AI capabilities when possible, the management of large datasets becomes considerably easier and insights can be drawn from this information much more readily. Finding ways to conquer data — coupled with the aforementioned collaboration between experts — will revolutionise the industry.

Optimising logistics

Sadly, when the pandemic hit, we quickly discovered that many nations and their health services were underprepared when it came to having the right equipment and infrastructure in place to respond rapidly. Testing for COVID-19 took a long time to get fully off the ground in the UK and the early scramble for ventilators underlined the fact that the country had been caught off guard.

Logistically, the production of medicines is a major operation even outside of a pandemic. For example, a drug may be produced in India with raw materials developed in Japan before being sent to a warehouse in Europe from where it’s then distributed. This all needs to be done with the medicine’s short shelf-life in mind.

To prevent these struggles from becoming a major issue in a future outbreak, the pharmaceutical industry needs to be prepared to act quickly to scale-up the production of key resources — such as specialised testing kits and new medicines as soon as they are needed.

Maintaining healthy stockpiles of established treatments is also key as there is always a possibility that an older medicine might be effective against a novel disease — as has been seen with dexamethasone.

This will also require governments and international health bodies to be much quicker in future in developing and implementing emergency procedures to scale-up production when the need arises.

Regulatory considerations

The pharmaceutical industry, by necessity, is a heavily regulated one. Although the challenges of the pandemic have created a need for regulatory processes to be expedited in many cases, lockdown restrictions have made it more difficult for this to be done efficiently.

There are also inconsistencies across geographies in terms of if and how a state regulator will approve a particular treatment. For these problems to be ironed out, the pharma industry and the agencies responsible for regulation need to work more closely together to ensure responses can be better co-ordinated in the future.

Increased flexibility and efficiency are the name of the game, both in terms of regulatory approval for new treatments and logistical considerations that ensure that medicines can be manufactured and delivered in double-quick time.

Ultimately, if and when we face another pandemic, it’s crucial that the pharmaceutical industry has learnt from the lessons taught by COVID-19: innovation, efficiency, data analysis and collaboration will be key … and leaders in the sector should be focusing their efforts now on how to ensure the processes are in pace to facilitate this should we find ourselves amidst another worldwide pandemic.

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