We’re finally about to leave this dreadful 2020 behind! This year was stacked with natural and man-made disasters, economic and mental collapse, bleeding healthcare and the untimely and unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands. No wonder we are all waiting for the year to end and find some peace of mind that it will all be over soon – and that 2021 will be better.
And hope, indeed, is what we have. Because throughout 2020, amazing advances have given hope that rose in science, technology, digital health, leadership and in basic human care and kindness. Anti-racist books topping the lists. More people wash hands than ever before. Neighbours caring, dogs adopted and people start searching for the real meaning of their lives. Although the current affairs always took the focus off of these positive consolidations, they were there and will stay with us in the future, giving hope not only for 2021 but for the years and decades way beyond it.
The scientific public has reacted to the news of the virus at an astonishing rate. Have you ever thought that the genome of a virus can be sequenced within 24 hours?! Not a single person would have bet on it before 2020, and still, we have seen the enormous and concentrated effort that was put into vaccine development over the past year.
The global pandemic has put a spotlight on the life science industry, and, for the most part, it has stood up to the intensity of that glare.
In less than a year, biopharma and academia went from knowing nothing about SARS-CoV-2 to rolling out a new vaccine using brand-new technology to the world.
But the advent of this pandemic has also raised a lot of questions. Why, before 2020, had vaccines and infectious disease research been left at the back of the cupboard by so many? Meanwhile, rare diseases and cancer, typically much more profitable areas, have been sitting out on the countertop.
Experts had been warning about a major new epidemic or pandemic for years. SARS, Ebola, Zika and H1N1 should have raised their own alarms, but the surges of work to fight those diseases never led to sustained interest in infectious disease R&D.
COVID-19 has left its fingerprints across everything in life sciences, whether directly or indirectly. Biotech IPOs have boomed this year, and not just those for biotechs hunting for COVID-19 drugs; in fact, most of those companies are going after typical oncology and rare disease targets. But as one of the only industries with strong growth amid the pandemic, biotech has seen a major bump in valuations and optimism.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has also reshaped clinical trials: The rise and rise of the virtual model, so necessary during lockdowns to keep R&D moving in all disease areas, has become a present and future bet many pharmas and investors are now making.
The pandemic, coupled with the social justice movement, has fired up new interest in equitable drug research. Recruiting a truly diverse population for any trial has been a longstanding challenge, but COVID-19 brought diversification front and center; when patients of color are disproportionately affected by the disease—with more cases and more deaths—the same communities should be better tested in trials.Some companies did do so in their COVID-19 trials, although belatedly, but 2021 could be a year of true change.
Whatever the pandemic trajectory proves to be in 2021, it’s safe to say COVID-19 will have changed biopharma permanently, just as it has the rest of the world.