Lessons learned from COVID-19: how do we prepare for the next pandemic?

March 10, 2021 Sponsored Turnstone Communications

Although the crisis has not yet passed, COVID-19 has already taught us many valuable lessons. This past year has tested us all, but governments and companies across the world have come together to tackle this global health challenge. In February, industry leaders from Flanders and Canada joined in a webinar, organized by Flanders Investment and Trade (FIT) and The Embassy of Canada to Belgium and Luxembourg, to discuss how we can already start applying our newfound knowledge to help prepare for the next pandemic.

Webinar speakers

Andrew Casey, President and CEO, BIOTECanada
Ann Van Gysel, CEO, Turnstone Communications (Moderator)
Frederic “Fred” Ors, CEO, IMV Inc.
Nicolas Petit, Vice-President, Commercial Operations, Medicago Inc.
Paul Hodgson, Associate Director Business Development, VIDO
Sonja Willems, Managing Director, Janssen Europe, Middle East and Africa
Steven Powell, CEO, eTheRNA
Willem Dhooge, co-CEO, Flanders.bio

How did governments and companies respond to the COVID-19 crisis?

“I don’t think as a country we had done enough to get ready for this [pandemic]. Some of the activities that took place during COVID-19 really exposed the gaps we need to fill, not only in Canada but also globally.” – Andrew Casey, President and CEO, BIOTECanada

Both Flanders and Canada already had thriving life sciences sectors before this pandemic turned our lives upside down. Due to the strength of the local ecosystems, both regions were able to quickly mobilize government, academia and industry to tackle the challenge head on. The governments of both regions played an important role in promoting collaborations, establishing networks and organizing the logistics of activities such as clinical trials and testing, as well as funding a flurry of R&D activities which enabled companies to move faster with their innovations.

“Like many companies, we started manufacturing “at risk”. The collaboration with the government was crucial for risk sharing on the R&D track.” – Sonja Willems, Managing Director, Janssen Europe, Middle East and Africa

I don’t think as a country we had done enough to get ready for this [pandemic]. Some of the activities that took place during COVID-19 really exposed the gaps we need to fill, not only in Canada but also globally. – Andrew Casey, President and CEO, BIOTECanada

In both Flanders and Canada, companies also stepped up to the plate, working hard to develop solutions to this unprecedented global challenge. Just among the five organizations represented at the February webinar, activities included: vaccine development and formulation work; converting company labs into government COVID-19 testing facilities; providing hospitals with disinfectant gels and sterilized equipment; and creating SARS-CoV-2 animal models that have been used by researchers around the world.

“When the crisis started, there was a huge energy coming from the smaller biotechs; we’ve seen an incredible effort in developing testing capacity, R&D, etc. There was also a kind of community response from other companies that aren’t normally in the health space, which provided protective clothing, lab supplies, PCR centrifuges etc. That was really impressive and nice to see.” – Willem Dhooge, co-CEO, Flanders.bio

What have some of the biggest challenges been so far?

It goes without saying that this past year has been rife with hurdles to be overcome. For the webinar participants, there were a few challenges in particular that have stood out. The smaller companies listed operational difficulties as particularly cumbersome, such as training new staff while all hands were needed on deck, and keeping non-COVID clinical trials running while also pivoting to other activities. Determining priorities, technically, scientifically and from a business perspective, was hard. Another factor was timing: having to make very consequential decisions extremely fast, but also being able to sustain the momentum (with a team that’s working long, hard hours) in the long-term.

“To be able to address the problems we see, and foresee [with future pandemics], the only way that we can move forward as a small company is through collaboration.” – Steven Powell, eTheRNA

We are global organizations being confronted with local crises where politicians are making overnight decisions that are jeopardizing [access to vaccines]. – Sonja Willems, Janssen

For several of the larger players, the international nature of their organization was both a blessing and a curse. This has particularly come into play with the issue of vaccine nationalism.

“A main challenge for many of us is that our supply chains are extremely global. Politicians are looking at their local electorate and doing everything they can to protect that. Which we understand, but where borders are being closed [it is blocking vaccine production]. We are global organizations being confronted with local crises where politicians are making overnight decisions that are jeopardizing [access to vaccines]. We were hoping that the EU would have a more global view, but they have disappointed us.” – Sonja Willems, Managing Director, Janssen Europe, Middle East and Africa

What needs to be done to prepare for the next pandemic?

Although we are still in the midst of this crisis, we have already gleaned valuable information about how best we can prepare ourselves for future threats. There was agreement that one of the most important preparations we can undertake is to increase domestic capacities for manufacturing and the funding strategy for such facilities.

“We have a lot of great companies that are bringing forward novel technologies and new vaccines. I think where we’ve seen a significant issue, globally, is there is a lack of manufacturing capacity. These facilities are not easy to build quickly, especially when you’ve got new technologies like the mRNA vaccines. I think Canada needs to think strategically about what it is going to do between now and the next pandemic to build its own domestic capacity for manufacturing. These facilities are state-of-the-art, and you have to keep them running constantly; you can’t just shut them down between pandemics, flip the switch on in 5-10 years and hope that they’re going to be good to go. I think you need to keep them commercial between the crises. How is that going to be managed? Some significant investments are going to be required, and I think the government is going to have to work with the industry to figure out strategies going forwards.” – Andrew Casey, President and CEO, BIOTECanada

It is time to prepare for the next pandemic now, and we need to have an integrated chain of response. – Nicolas Petit, Medicago Inc.

According to some of the others, not only the manufacturing capacity, but the full pandemic response chain needs to be worked on

“It is time to prepare for the next pandemic now, and we need to have an integrated chain of response. If the detection isn’t working, if the distribution isn’t planned, if there is one single link missing or not robust enough, the chain will collapse. So, each country needs to work on the full response chain and make it sustainable.” – Nicolas Petit, Vice-President, Commercial Operations, Medicago Inc.

How do we convince governments around the world that investments in scientific research and development is fundamental to preparedness? – Paul Hodgson, VIDO

Key to the above points is funding. All were in agreement that investing in innovation, preemptively and not just in reactively, was vital.

“How do we convince governments around the world that investments in scientific research and development is fundamental to preparedness? Worldwide, infectious diseases are still one of the principal causes of death. [COVID-19] is a specific case scenario that has affected a lot of people, but there will be others. It is cheaper to prevent diseases than to treat disease. The return on investment for [childhood] vaccines is about 18 dollars saved for every dollar spent. People have to remember that from a public health position, the ROI for vaccinations is astronomical. If the general population says: “this preparedness is essential for us”, then the politicians will have to continue to drive investments into science, technology and development.” – Paul Hodgson, Associate Director Business Development, VIDO

What are your hopes, going forwards?

“I hope that, like an immune response, we’ll sustain a durable memory of this pandemic. And that this will help people in the future to predict what is coming and what is important.” – Nicolas Petit, Vice-President, Commercial Operations, Medicago Inc.

There was a fair bit of positivity expressed by the webinar participants who felt that, despite the difficulty of the past year, we have made progress which will help us overcome future challenges. They expressed hope that the many collaborations that have formed will continue, and new ones will form in that same spirit. They also expressed confidence that the biotech industry will not only play a part in creating solutions, but also the help economic recovery in Flanders, Canada and across the world.

I hope that, like an immune response, we’ll sustain a durable memory of this pandemic. – Nicolas Petit, Vice-President, Medicago Inc.

“Having spent most of my career working with infectious diseases, I would like to think that there will now be sustainable funding. Not just governmental funding, but also sector-specific venture capital funding for infectious disease vaccines and therapeutic discoveries. It has been very hard over the course of the past 20 years to convince a lot of VCs to invest in this space. I’d like to think that people now understand the real value of this work, and that there is not only merit in investing in the science but commercial opportunity as well.” – Steven Powell, CEO, eTheRNA

Read this BioVox article for a look back on the first year of COVID-19.

One thing all the speakers shared was a communal aspiration for prioritizing innovation.

“Pandemics aren’t new, and this pandemic is not a surprise. But the environment we are providing is very different from what we’ve had in the past. There are more than a billion people travelling every year; back in the 1950s, there were only 50 million. Along with population density and age, all of these things create a new environment. And these factors are only going to increase in the future. If we want to be ready for the next pandemic, we need to realize that there is a need for innovation, now more than ever. I really hope that this crisis is going to trigger more strategic thinking, at the government level and across the globe, for how we can invest in innovation and make it sustainable.” – Frederic “Fred” Ors, CEO, IMV Inc.

Quotes have been edited for length and clarity. Header image by Anna Shvets.

You can find the full recorded webinar via this link.


Turnstone Communications
Turnstone Communications

We are a specialized consultancy agency providing communications, marketing and strategic support to companies and organizations in the life sciences industry. We share client articles on BioVox providing insight into new and established players in the Belgian ecosystem, from innovations and research breakthroughs through to finance and industry trends.

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