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The pandemic: Consequences, side-effects and new insights

Anders Blanck and Ketil Widerberg

The Nordic life science industry has not only survived, but managed to grow and develop during the pandemic. The past 1.5 years have also brought valuable lessons, including the importance of collaboration and how to shorten development pathways in other areas too.

Since February/March 2020, the pandemic has turned societies all around the world upside down. Countries have temporarily shut their borders, entered lockdowns, imposed limitations on gatherings, and healthcare systems have been brought to their knees. Almost 4.5 million people have lost their lives [Johns Hopkins, August 26 2021]. This fall, more and more of us are being vaccinated, but many countries are also facing a fifth wave of the pandemic. It is far from over, both when it comes to global health, and also when it comes to recovering our economics and societies.

Nordic efforts

The global life science industry has played a very important role during the pandemic, and delivered treatments, tests, and not least, vaccines in record time. In the Nordic region, the innovation capacity and willingness to deliver and aid has also been high among life science actors.

“We have seen the true value of innovation clusters as resilient ecosystems where scientists, companies, hospitals, and investors connect.”

“We have seen the true value of innovation clusters as resilient ecosystems where scientists, companies, hospitals, and investors connect,” describes Ketil Widerberg, General Manager, Oslo Cancer Cluster (OCC), and CEO, Oslo Cancer Cluster Incubator. “From telecom company Telenor and University professor Arnoldo Frigessi’s work on mobile data to predict the geographical spread of COVID-19, to infection control equipment, like Epiguard’s medical isolation and transportation systems.”

 

decode and xerum

Left: Iceland established itself early on as a leader when it comes to testing and has gained a lot of attention worldwide. Photo: Decode Genetics. Right: Swedish company Xerum has launched a home testing kit that detects antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. Photo: Emil Byström

 

At OCC Incubator, Ketil and his colleagues have converted three meeting rooms to new advanced cell labs for research, partly as a response to the shortage of labs following the pandemic. “It is all about speed, how to transform an idea into a product that helps patients,” he says.

Anders Blanck, CEO of the trade association for the research-based pharmaceutical industry in Sweden (Lif), says that during the entire pandemic their members have been able to successfully do their main task, i.e. to supply important medicines and vaccines to patients and Swedish healthcare.

“Lif and our member companies have had close cooperation with authorities, regions and other actors during the entire crisis in order to assist Swedish healthcare. During the initial phase in particular, where the demand for certain pharmaceuticals within intensive care increased dramatically, there was a need for a quick delivery of good and situation-adapted solutions. There have also been a number of issues connected to the COVID-19 vaccines where we have been able to assist with our expertise,” he says.

When it comes to research on new pharmaceutical substances it was necessary to pause a number of clinical trials since healthcare was extremely burdened during the waves of the pandemic. ”It is now important that all of these trials are resumed as soon as possible, so that patients in Sweden can be offered the most modern treatments,” says Blanck.

“The public sector has been very trusting in complying with procedures. The life science industry has shown itself to be very efficient and that has a positive impact on the Danish life science.”

Diana Arsovic Nielsen, CEO, the Danish Life Science Cluster (DLSC), says there has always been a strong system of collaboration between academics and the public sector in Denmark. ”The pandemic has strengthened this collaboration, which is very positive. For example, testing centers were developed over a weekend – running thousands of tests, integrating data and analyzing data. We implemented fast and opened up the society sooner than many other countries. The public sector has been very trusting in complying with procedures. The life science industry has shown itself to be very efficient and that has a positive impact on the Danish life science,” she says.

Growth modes

It also looks like the Nordic life science companies have survived the economic consequences of the pandemic. A new survey by SwedenBIO during spring 2021 showed that pharmaceutical development companies with operations in Sweden are actually even more confident about future growth than pre-COVID. The association published a similar report a year earlier and the two surveys demonstrate the remarkable strength and resilience of the sector, states SwedenBIO. The most recent survey showed that 80% of the companies intended to recruit more staff or consultants in the coming year. Compared to the situation a year ago, their confidence in projecting future growth has increased and 62% of companies have a more positive view of their projections now compared to before COVID hit, with only 8% reporting the opposite. The survey also revealed an increasing number of international experts being appointed to boards and collaborations being signed.

Erna Björnsdóttir, Manager, Invest in Iceland, also witnesses that companies in Iceland have survived, and more than that, “Many have secured funding in this period,” she says. These include SideKick Health, Controlant, EpiEndo and NeckCare.

“Another positive sign is that during the pandemic in Iceland the financing of four new venture funds was completed, including one that focuses on life science and health technology.”

The governmental support has been very important in Iceland, she adds. “What we are most interested in, and what we believe will have the best long-term effects, are the changes made in the tax incentives for R&D. Since 2019 the tax credit has been raised from 20% to 35% of the actual R&D cost within SMEs and the annual ceiling of total actual cost has been lifted from 600 million ISK to 1,100 million ISK. During this period we have seen an increase in companies’ investment in R&D, and an analysis made by the Federation of Industries this spring shows that in 2020, we finally reached the official goal of R&D expenditure being 3% of GDP (not only life sciences but all industries),” she says.

Another positive sign is that during the pandemic in Iceland the financing of four new venture funds was completed, including one that focuses on life science and health technology, Iðunn.

 

Diana Arsovic Nielsen and Erna Björnsdóttir

Diana Arsovic Nielsen, CEO, the Danish Life Science Cluster and Erna Björnsdóttir, Manager, Invest in Iceland (Photo: Kristján Maack)

 

Carmela Kantor-Aaltonen, Director, Finnish Bioindustries, also says that so far the pandemic has boosted Finland’s life science ecosystem. “Most of the companies have survived and the effect has not been too bad. The government has supported companies in many ways and increased the financing of COVID-19 research at the universities,” she says.

Nordic solutions and initiatives

The most significant impact of the pandemic is the development of new vaccines, believes Ketil Widerberg. Vaccibody for example, expanded their vaccine platform developed for cancer and are now showing promising results for a second-generation COVID-19 vaccine. “Another example is NEC Oncoimmunity, where the software for modeling personal cancer vaccines is now explored to develop a vaccine,” he says.

In Finland, diagnostic companies especially reacted quickly and came up with innovative solutions, says Carmela Kantor-Aaltonen. “Researchers offered their knowledge, advice and equipment to companies to build up diagnostics and testing as soon as possible. For example Mobidiag, HyTest, Medix Biochemica, and Abomix came up with new tests, kits and reagents.”

 

BII Mobidiag

Left: The Novo Nordisk Foundation is supporting a large number of projects and initiatives in relation to combatting COVID-19. Right: Finnish Mobidiag offers complementary molecular tests for coronavirus infection diagnostics.

 

Iceland, which has a population of around 364,000, has had the unique position of having very high testing capabilities, helped by the Icelandic medical research company deCODE Genetics and Iceland health authorities. The country established itself early on as a leader when it comes to testing and has gained a lot of attention worldwide. “The focus has been on variant analysis. Each sample is analyzed in order to find which variant of coronavirus it is. The results are used in the tracking of infections, with people trying to understand how the infections spread,” describes Erna Björnsdóttir.

The results can also be used to monitor what type of symptoms each variant causes, to assist drug development and further development of vaccines.

“In my opinion this is important for scientists in Iceland, securing their position in the international research environment and drawing attention to the skills and scientific know-how in Iceland,” she says.

“The COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, led by the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Finland, has improved the reputation and awareness of Finnish life science research. Hopefully it will also affect the Finnish biobank ecosystem positively an bring more company collaboration and investments to Finland.”

Another positive initiative gaining world-wide attention is the COVID-19 Host Genetics Initiative, led by the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Finland (FIMM). “This has improved the reputation and awareness of Finnish life science research. Hopefully it will also affect the Finnish biobank ecosystem positively an bring more company collaboration and investments to Finland,” says Kantor-Aaltonen.

 

Carmela Kantor-Aaltonen

Carmela Kantor-Aaltonen, Director, Finnish Bioindustries. Photo: Sini Pennanen

 

“COVID-19 showed what is possible and shortened development times down to months instead of years,” says Ketil Widerberg. He believes that this will have an impact in other fields of research and diseases too. “In cancer, we believe that the use of real world evidence (RWE) will shorten development times from 10 to 5 years, with virtual control arms, digital twins and synthetic data that enable new development pathways. The Norwegian government is looking into how this can be a part of the country’s long-term strategy for research in general, and specifically for the European Union’s Cancer Mission.”

Lessons learned

Anders Blanck says that the corona crisis has taught him that the pharmaceutical industry – together with other actors – is capable of great deeds when they collaborate. “The collective research effort that pharma companies and academia has made in order to in less than a year after the outbreak be able to initiate large scale vaccination is unprecedented in medicine history. The fact that the supply of medicines in Sweden, despite export restrictions and closed borders in Europe and around the world, worked so well during the crisis is also positive.”

“The collective research effort that pharma companies and academia has made in order to in less than a year after the outbreak be able to initiate large scale vaccination is unprecedented in medicine history.”

Blanck adds that the pandemic has also shown that the unique Swedish system, with what is termed a one-channel-distribution model for medicines has been incredibly valuable for society. “Pharma companies have during the pandemic, with very few exceptions, been able to maintain storages for 3-4 months of normal consumption. It is doubtful if even bigger storages provides for a better preparedness. We believe that it is more important to maintain global free-trade and open borders, quicker decision-making processes, for example with exemptions for foreign packages, and clear regional and national forecasts around the demand for important medicines. During the pandemic individual country export restrictions were a major challenge.”

“On the negative side there is of course society’s failure when it comes to protecting the most vulnerable elderly. It has also become clear that our Swedish model of society has challenges when it comes to national priority and coordination when this kinds of crisis occurs,” he says.

 

Epishuttle

The Norwegian company EpiGuards isolation pod EpiShuttle has been used by many countries for safe transportation of contagious patients.

 

Ketil Widerberg says that the pandemic has also further broken down the silos between disciplines. “Increased funding and interdisciplinary collaborations helped improve our understanding of the immune system, which will lead to new breakthroughs,” he says.

“The path forward is learning from this and aligning public and private efforts to achieve faster development times, better understanding of the immune system, and improved international collaboration.”

The pandemic has also shown the importance of public and private collaboration in health innovation, from WARP speed in the USA to the Cancer Mission in the EU. “The path forward is learning from this and aligning public and private efforts to achieve faster development times, better understanding of the immune system, and improved international collaboration,” he says.

The pandemic has showed us how important it is to look into life science, as well as health technology, when handling health, and especially in the context of a crisis, adds Diana Arsovic Nielsen. ”I believe that developing solutions, bridging life science and health technology and sharing data has the potential for long-term benefits for the Danish life science industry,” she says.

Prepared for a new crisis – together?

According to Anders Blanck, an import aspect to prepare for in facing a new crisis is access to relevant data, in order to be able to act quickly and timely and implement relevant measures.

“In Sweden we have in general access to a large amount of health data of high quality but the challenge is to in a systematically way make available, but also analyze, these amounts of data that have been collectively gathered. We need to continue to develop the legal prerequisites and the technical solutions in order to fight future pandemics in a more effective way,” he says.

 

Anders Blanck and Ketil Widerberg

Anders Blanck, CEO, Lif (Photo: Gunilla Lundström) and Ketil Widerberg, General Manager, Oslo Cancer Cluster and CEO, Oslo Cancer Cluster Incubator (Photo: Stig Jarnes)

 

When it comes to clinical trials there is a lot we can do to attract more trials to Sweden and also to carry out important research, even in times of crisis, he adds. He and his colleagues at Lif have developed a new action plan for clinical trials that includes a number of proposals to adapt the legal framework and simplify the process of starting and performing trials.

“Sweden can become a pioneering country for virtual trials with safe distance monitoring of included patients. We also suggest a modern Swedish offering around clinical trials, SweTrial. We want to see a concrete partnership around company initiated clinical trials between the Government, the Regions, academia and the life science industry, in close collaboration with professional and patient organizations. It would also facilitate Nordic collaboration in life science, and strengthen the Nordic countries joint attractiveness in the increasing global competition,” says Blanck.

“The Nordics could propose an initiative on regulatory innovation in selected pilot countries with advanced health data and cancer registries to contribute significantly to the EU’s Cancer Mission.”

The Nordics can join forces to accelerate development times for new medicines, starting with cancer, suggests Ketil Widerberg. “The EU Cancer Mission is rooted in Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, and the European Green Deal and Industrial and digitalization strategy. This is a good starting point.”

COVID-19 has showed us that alternative ways to develop new medicines are both needed and possible, he continues. “The Nordics could propose an initiative on regulatory innovation in selected pilot countries with advanced health data and cancer registries to contribute significantly to the EU’s Cancer Mission,” he says.