The Biopharmaceutical Counterattack

Jeremy Levin

The latest contagious and deadly global virus, COVID-19, is invisibly sprinting across the world and across America.

As the crisis engulfs our nation, it has exposed failures to heed the warnings of experts that would have allowed us to arm ourselves for what we have long known to be this inevitable threat.

Worse yet, critical capacities that would have allowed us to wheel into action immediately were recently dismantled.

As a consequence, the pandemic has precipitated both medical and societal dislocation, the full impact of which we cannot yet measure and predict. While we know that COVID-19 has brought widespread fear and disruption and now death, less seen is that it has galvanized and united some of the best among us in common cause to defeat the virus and hopefully thereby save the lives of untold thousands. 

This is true across the board, from healthcare workers on the frontlines to academic and biopharmaceutical researchers. We are all in this together.

In our case, the biotechnology industry immediately stepped forward. Even while many of our employees were sent home to protect themselves, their colleagues and loved ones from infection, the strategic engine of biotechnology pivoted from our normal activities to launch a counterattack against the virus. 

Small and large companies have embarked upon an unprecedented effort to produce more effective diagnostics, to test existing therapeutics and develop novel vaccines and treatments. 

Each of us has ways to contribute that play to our strengths. A few larger companies, like Teva, have stepped forward to manufacture and donate large volumes of promising generic medicines. Others have begun to test approved patented medicines in new trials because that is their strength.

Smaller companies like Moderna are testing novel vaccines – an example of how small and nimble companies dominate this science. Nearly overnight, collaborative agreements have been struck between companies to develop additional innovative approaches such as that between Alnylam Pharmaceuticals and Vir Biotechnology. On the diagnostic front, companies like QIAGEN and Roche are bringing their extensive production capability online.

These companies are staffed with researchers who hail from across the world. The coronavirus is undeterred by national border. And the dedicated scientists waging war against the pandemic – the best of the best – transcend borders and national interest to pool their knowledge, skills and commitment in the war against this spreading disease.

In this fight, critical discoveries are most likely to be made in countries where biotechnology has been nourished and has flourished because of market-based economics.

We will prevail against this deadly scourge. After we get through this, we must assess what went right and what we need to fix in the healthcare, pharmaceutical and biopharmaceutical worlds. For today, we will focus on doing everything we can to save lives. We will develop diagnostics to quickly diagnose those infected with the virus. We will invent the therapies and treatments to help them recover, and we will develop vaccines to prevent the infection from hurting so many people again in the future.

I am proud to be a part of this industry. At a time of a crisis of medical need, the industry has risen to the occasion. As with the revolutions in gene therapy, cell therapy immune-oncology and curing Hepatitis C, we do amazing things to help patients. This is our mission, and it will always be our mission.

Even now – as Congress mobilizes to support our nation and passes much needed legislation – it’s important to remember that that mission can only continue if the engines that drive biotechnology innovation are encouraged to turn. We have built all of this tremendous capability, with assets in academia and industry, over the past 75 years. We must continue to support both sectors.

Industry relies on robust investment and the ability to protect its crucial intellectual property.  The public and the press should hold us accountable for our commitment to key principles of behavior and to call out excesses – such as egregiously high prices of certain medications. We must fix this problem. We, as leaders of industry, will condemn these violations of trust ourselves.

At the same time, government, the public and the media should all recognize and acknowledge the advances to the wellbeing of mankind that we make every day. Without America’s singular status as the world’s biomedical leader, the world will remain at the mercy of not only each new pandemic that crosses our borders, but of diseases that have plagued humans for millennia.

Our scientists will win this fight. Then, together we can continue to go about building a better healthcare system that ensures that the medical innovation brought to us by the scientists in our labs is affordably available to everyone.

Jeremy Levin is the CEO of Ovid Therapeutics and the chairman of the board of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

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