Martin Meeson, CEO of FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies, recalls that, during the pandemic, “While we were responding to a difficult situation for the world, some very positive ways of working came out of the way that we responded. We're now all feeling a bit of responsibility for how to take that forward.”

Other sector executives agree that these changes foreshadow a potentially lasting shift in the healthcare landscape. Of those surveyed, the majority believe that Covid-19 has been a wake-up call for government to do more to support the biopharma industry. More than half expect communication and collaboration between biopharma executives and government ministers to increase over the next two years. Similar numbers think that corporate strategy will need to change to bring this about, but that the closer relationship will allow firms to deliver better patient outcomes.

What is on the horizon for biopharma?

What is on the horizon for biopharma

While widespread, these sentiments are not felt universally. The data indicates that the benefits of government intervention have been felt unevenly across the biopharma industry and wider society, with some firms and populations benefitting more than others.

Where these cooperative partnerships lack deeper roots, they may wither. Adrian van den Hoven, director-general of Medicines for Europe, a representative body for manufacturers of generics and biosimilars, highlights two “peaks of sudden, close collaboration” — one as the pandemic took hold, and another as the vaccine rollout accelerated. During these periods, he says, “everyone was working together because, basically, this was a huge public health crisis and governments didn't know how to react. Then it died down. It is not clear that these governments see an interest in continuing, even though the cooperation was fruitful and constructive.”

In contrast, where relationships were already strong, the pandemic bolstered them further. One senior pharmaceutical executive working in the Middle East cites the Gulf states as an example, explaining that intensified collaboration there built on a longstanding culture of productive, mutually beneficial discussion between industry and government.

In April 2020, the South Korean government set aside $250mn to establish the Vaccine Innovative Technology Alliance (VITAL) to boost discovery, development, and deployment of vaccines. Of course, Covid-19 was a factor, but this seven-year initiative is the latest step in a shared journey going back to 2010. South Korea has invested a further $2bn in the K Vaccine programme, with the aim of making the country the fifth-largest vaccine producer in the world by 2025 and 80 per cent vaccine self-sufficient.

In short, the post-Covid-19 landscape will see an enhanced level of interaction in countries and regions where governments and biopharma were already working in harness; elsewhere, collaboration may need more encouragement. In particular, governments need to expand the ecosystems of companies they engage with. And given that a future pandemic is inevitable, it is vital that they work hand in hand with these firms to develop robust, long-term strategies for patient care.

The limits of collaboration: Thorny challenges around domestic supply

One area where many governments are interested in forging a closer relationship with industry is in addressing insufficient supply — a danger aggravated by the recent trend in so-called health nationalism.

An obvious response is to increase domestic manufacturing capacity. Accordingly, the majority of surveyed executives expect government investment in biopharma manufacturing to grow over the next two years, and more than half expect that governments will invest in sovereign manufacturing or onshoring the supply chain over the same period. Similarly, 56 per cent foresee an increased number of state initiatives to improve access to talent.

A majority of executives expect government involvement in biopharma to increase

A majority of executives expect government involvement in biopharma to increase

The importance of deepening the talent pool is difficult to overestimate, says van den Hoven: “Even someone performing cleaning tasks in a biologics plant has to have five years of training, because you cannot have impurities floating around.”

Experts warn that far-reaching support for the developing health ecosystem is required. This starts with reimbursement: 41 per cent of biopharma executives worry that onshoring will drive up labour and raw-material costs.

As van den Hoven points out, to promote manufacturing, governments must implement market-based incentives — not protectionist measures. A biopharma manufacturing facility anywhere is a costly, long-term investment and, in the EU for example, regulators may take years to approve it for operation. “There has to be a market for companies to invest in this kind of manufacturing sustainably over the long term,” he says.

In this context, the tendency of health officials to drive down pharmaceutical prices is “counterproductive to security of supply” says van den Hoven. Moreover, says Dr Jerome Kim, director-general of the International Vaccine Institute, “some domestic markets will be too small for manufacturing initiatives to succeed”.

About half of biopharma executives believe that government involvement is having a positive impact on the industry

Half of biopharma executives believe that government involvement is positive impact

Finance is only the start. Other important areas include taxation, the intellectual property and regulatory environment and policy stability over the medium and longer terms.

With both buyers and producers seeking the lowest costs, governments need to create a consistent policy environment to promote domestic production.

In our next article, we look at two areas where such new thinking can have a more straightforward impact on domestic supply: regulatory issues and intellectual property.