This article was first published on May 27, 2020 on PhRMA's The Catalyst blog.
It has been amazing to see our scientific and health care communities mobilizing during these extraordinary times. Such is the devastating human toll and global impact of COVID-19 that developing tests, treatments and vaccines has become an urgent, unifying priority for health care providers, policymakers, and the biopharmaceutical community alike.
For the last several months, our industry and partners have been expected to deliver our utmost during one of the most demanding periods in our history. And we are rising to the challenge. Across the world, there are 1,020 clinical trials testing 339 potential COVID-19 treatments and nine vaccine candidates1. They represent an array of multifaceted approaches designed to help tackle the problem at hand - from improving recovery and reducing mortality now to ultimately suppressing or curing the disease. At Genentech, and our parent company Roche, we’ve launched trials to study one of our medicines in COVID-19 pneumonia in a matter of weeks rather than the more typical months, expanded production capacity from hundreds of thousands to millions of doses to ensure sufficient supply, and developed two diagnostic tests (1, 2), ramping up manufacturing exponentially in record time to help meet unprecedented demand. These actions have been made possible by the exceptional efforts of government and regulatory institutions, as well as partnerships across the health care ecosystem with distributors, insurers, patient organizations and providers.
Despite being in the midst of this crisis, we’ve seen impressive evidence of what our health care system is capable of when innovation is supported and we set other considerations aside to unite behind helping patients in need. Unfortunately, equally apparent and in many cases magnified, are the underlying problems that impede innovation and access to care. While there is much that we will ultimately learn from this experience, I believe there’s already a list of critical actions we must take:
1. Advance health equity for underserved and vulnerable communities
It is a destructive and disgraceful reality that the inequities of our health care system are exacerbated during periods of crisis and stress. In the current pandemic, we are seeing racial and ethnic minorities experience higher infection risks along with increased hospitalization and mortality rates2, and our most vulnerable communities have been hit hardest financially with severe impacts on their long-term health and wellbeing. To address this, we must immediately enable access to investigational COVID-19 medicines for communities of color, for example with dedicated clinical trials; provide financial support and access to care resources for people who have lost employment or insurance coverage; and make significant philanthropic investments where they are needed most. Beyond the context of the pandemic, we must come together to make bold changes in advancing inclusive research and health equity for all people. This is very deliberately at the top of my list.
2. Secure the global supply chain
COVID-19 has provided a sharp reminder of the need to have a coordinated global response to the world’s health care challenges. While it is critical to ensure domestic manufacturing capacity, we must complement this by maintaining the free movement of materials and medicines across international borders. This will secure the supply of critical treatments for American patients as well as those who rely upon them around the world.
3. Pursue innovation in everything
It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention. While our industry is well known for the significant and impactful investments we make in traditional research and development (more than $11 billion a year across Roche and Genentech), the way we’ve been able to break with conventional processes and accelerate progress during this pandemic reminds us of the need to find opportunities for innovation everywhere. For example, could we reimagine certain clinical trial operations so that they are no longer as reliant on hospital care? What new opportunities might exist for at-home infusions, advanced remote digital monitoring and greater tracking and use of real-world data?
4. Protect scientific rigor
Let’s be clear: There is an essential balance to be struck between moving as fast as we can at this critical moment and ensuring the collection of robust diagnostic, clinical efficacy and safety data. Lives depend on both. We will never and can never compromise on scientific rigor.
5. Support essential workers
Without the selfless dedication of essential workers - whether that’s medical providers on the front lines or our own employees manufacturing medicines and advancing clinical research - there will be no end to this pandemic. There would also be far more devastating outcomes than we are already seeing today. We will be eternally in their debt and must assist, appreciate and reward them for their sacrifice in every way we can - from ensuring their families are well supported in terms of child or elderly care and financial security to prioritizing their safety and wellbeing at all times.
If we all continue to work together, I believe science will ultimately prevail over this disease. When it does, we must employ the lessons that we have learned, the extraordinary partnerships that we have forged, and the same sense of urgency to tackle the enormous health care challenges that we faced as a country before COVID-19. Our response to this pandemic must guide a new way of working for all of us so that we can create a better health care system for everyone who depends upon it in the future.