For some US biotech companies today, the ability to maintain business and societal continuity during the COVID–19 pandemic comes with assistance from a surprising source.
Contract research organizations (CROs) based in China were the first – and most severely — impacted by the new coronavirus outbreak in January. But they are now rebounding to provide their traditional services to biopharma clients worldwide, and they’re doing it with an extraordinary level of dedication during COVID-19 disruption.
It has been reported that China is mounting a “diplomatic offensive” through generous donations to Europe. On Wednesday, Mar. 18, China said it would provide 2 million surgical masks, 200,000 advanced masks and 50,000 COVID–19 testing kits to Europe.
“We’re grateful for China’s support,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in a tweet. “We need each other’s support in times of need.”
Social media is ablaze that China is seeking to build stronger relationships with America’s traditional allies, and that this is what happens when American diplomacy looks inward. That may be so on a macroeconomic and geopolitical scale. But on a microeconomic and social scale, it’s quite a different story, at least for some US biotech companies working in collaboration with Chinese CROs.
A significant percentage of all US biopharma companies rely on contract research conducted in China. There’s a reason: many of these companies perform first-rate work, meet their deadlines, and do it all at a lower cost than in the US or Europe.
So, when the SARS-CoV-2 virus began spreading in Wuhan and its surrounding Hubei Province, and the ensuing COVID–19 respiratory illness prompted a lockdown in China, it was immediately a cause of concern for the majority of US biotech companies who depend on work being done to develop their drugs in China.
The drastic containment measures and work disruptions in China rippled through US biotech almost immediately, throwing wrenches into product development timelines.
Two months later, the story is quite different. The US is now rapidly beginning to implement severe containment and mitigation measures. The FDA, the regulatory agency that all companies must work through to keep new drug applications moving along with proper designs, is operating at reduced capacity. Social isolation is the new norm.
Meanwhile, many CROs in China are returning to, or are already at, full capacity. Their current efforts extend far beyond making up lost productivity though – more on that to follow – but include acts of kindness and assistance that symbolize a gesture of global solidarity during an unprecedented interruption in society and business.
We work with several CROs in China. Cheng Zhong, a chemist at Morphic, has experienced unexpected support from a CRO in China that he feels is an effort to work side-by-side with customers who have become friends during times of need.
For example, Zhong recently received an email from a counterpart in China offering surgical and N95 masks because the partner was unsure if masks were freely available in the US. Dr. Zhong accepted the offer and immediately received the shipment of masks via express delivery.
The following is an excerpt from the email sent by his counterpart expressing their hopes for a return to normalcy in business – and the personal wish that the leader of Cheng’s team, Blaise Lippa, would be able to have the simple experiences that are so often taken for granted:
“Just as Cheng said, we fight together and we win together!!! I hope Blaise and his son could watch the NBA games together very soon.”
The stories move further than goodwill and friendly support. In late February, Morphic inquired about the potential impact on our research timelines and when operations might return to normal.
The reply from the Chinese CRO was surprising and heartening:
“In order to make up for the lost week of work, we plan to create a work schedule for everyone that can come and make up during weekends. Starting this weekend, each chemist will first make up 5 days, by working on the following Saturdays until early April.”
Others in the biotech community have experienced similar collaborative efforts by companies in China to deliver on shared projects despite the challenges with the new coronavirus restrictions.
Mark Tebbe is co-founder and chief technology officer of Cambridge, MA-based Quench Bio, another company that relies on contract research work in China to support operations. Quench discovered behavior that embodies alignment beyond the traditional vendor-client relationship.
“We worked through plans with them as they were returning to work – ensuring they stay safe but also get paid. They were acting as true collaborators not as fee for service vendors,” Tebbe said.
Shakti Narayan, CEO of Lexington, MA-based Accent Therapeutics, shared a similar experience that may provide assurance to US companies as they face escalating impact from the pandemic in the US – and as they increasingly rely on their Chinese counterparts to keep research moving.
“As virus went West, the Chinese CROs came back online much quicker than anticipated. And it was not just a gradual return, they came back to 100%. I was very impressed with the level of productivity and speed which they were able to come back online,” Narayan said.
As the CEO of Morphic however, like leaders of many companies, I remain cautious and concerned about the global impact of COVID-19. But our company is also energized by the solidarity we feel with collaborators around the world. It’s inspiring to see their efforts, which exceed the already-impressive standards they operate under in normal times.
In a turn of events that illustrates how rapidly the conditions are escalating, scientists at Morphic became aware of more acute shortages of personal protective equipment at Boston-area hospitals after they received the masks from our China-based CRO. The Morphic scientists, in turn, arranged to donate most of the PPE to healthcare workers on the front lines of COVID19 diagnosis and treatment in our community, the Greater Boston area.
In these tumultuous times of pandemic, these collaborative efforts may be summarized with a final excerpt from the email to Dr. Zhong:
“Seneca said: We are waves of the same sea, leaves of the same tree, flowers of the same garden!”