Of all the lessons for big pharma from the Covid-19 pandemic, there is one that is likely to endure. The industry has experienced remarkable success by working in a way that is surprisingly unusual: collaboration.

Biopharma’s usual drug-development process involves a whole cast of characters — from research scientists at discovery phases and clinical trials to distributors and regulators laying the ground for commercialization. But the kind of collaboration that happened in research and development (R&D) over the past year is a rarity.

Covid-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX), an initiative aimed at ensuring equitable access to vaccines, brought together 190 economies to turbocharge an immunization drive.1 And industry operators that either would not cross paths or are usually competitors have also shown they can work together when the moment calls for it: Pfizer and BioNTech, AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford, Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

Now, it is up to the industry to continue that momentum and ensure that this vibrant R&D ecosystem lives on. But there is some work to do. Results from Cytiva’s Global Biopharma Resilience Index show that the R&D ecosystem falls short on performance — it is an area that needs urgent attention.

Chart 1. The global R&D ecosystem is an area that needs urgent attention

Key Biopharma Resilience findings

An inconsistent approach

2020 showed that there is a real willingness among institutes to work together to fight Covid-19, but the broader picture shows that partnership is still a challenge elsewhere.

Although 44% of respondents to the research believe that both traditional pharma and biopharma firms have a widespread culture of cooperation and open innovation, just 34% believe the same about private companies, 32% about academic institutions, and less than 30% about contract research organizations and government think tanks.

That patchwork culture of cooperation has made it difficult for many to find the right people to work with: just a small minority of executives at pharma firms say it is not a challenge to partner on R&D with private companies (25%), government think tanks (14%) and contract research organizations (14%).

Missed opportunities

Martin Meeson, chief executive of Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, recognizes these shortfalls, and says that there is “always the ability to collaborate more”.

“We can make things,” he says. “But we need to know two things before we do: what do you want us to make, and do we have the components we need to make it? This is an essential part of being engaged and committed to collaboration.”

Meeson adds that the countries that nurture their R&D, education and infrastructure investment will be “ahead as we move forward”. For many countries, this will be a problem.

Chart 2. Countries with a lower gross national income per capita are more likely to struggle to access talent

R and D Biopharma Resilience Index graph

Of the 20 countries surveyed, many with a relatively high gross national income (GNI) per capita — Singapore, Australia, Japan and Italy, for example — fall short of some countries with much lower GNI per capita, such as Russia, China, India and South Korea. This suggests that sufficient investment has not gone into the ecosystem, or that existing resources are not being used as effectively as possible. Many of these countries have led innovation in the highly complex space of biotech, so they have reason to be cautious about granting access to their sensitive intellectual property. In Russia’s case, which emerged as the highest scoring country for the pillar, respondents felt the country’s ecosystem made a really good job of its response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are some positive signs in the index. Two-thirds of executives (66%) say the response to Covid-19 by their country’s R&D ecosystem has been good, which reflects the immense R&D done across continents to battle the pandemic. And most executives rate the capabilities of pharma and biopharma organizations in their countries as being among the best in the world, highlighting their confidence in standout organizations.

But the picture from the index is clear: the industry is too reluctant to partner up to ensure its ecosystem thrives as a unified whole, with many of the world’s higher-income countries falling short of where they should be. It does not have to be this way.

Strategic relationships make a better industry

WuXi Biologics, a Chinese contract development and manufacturing organization (CDMO), acts as a bridge across all aspects of the development process, helping connect the dots across the ecosystem to ensure the effective and efficient delivery of drugs.

“Every relationship we build is very strategic,” says Dr Chris Chen, chief executive of WuXi Biologics. “Our business model is when a company has an idea of a drug, we start to work with them, and then when they need a large amount of manufacturing, we work with them, and when the product gets to the end of its cycle we still help them.”

The company played an instrumental role, for example, in a $250m investment made by pharma giant GSK into Vir Biotechnology in April 2020 as part of a collaborative effort to accelerate a Covid-19 antibody into clinical trials.2

It shows how a joined-up approach can really support drug development while fostering closer relationships for the long term by allowing trust to build between partners.

There are other initiatives that are gaining traction. Martin Meeson points to the Biophorum group, which takes a hive-mind approach to solving challenges.

“During the pandemic we joined forces with a wider group of pharma industries to improve communication with the regulatory agencies around virtual inspections,” he says. “We are trying to speak with them in a more consolidated way and really streamline that process. This type of collaboration makes the whole industry better.”

Roberto Gradnik agrees. As chief executive of Ixaltis, a pharma start-up specializing in genitourinary and renal diseases, his company needs to be able to work with high-level experts. With global guidelines aligning more, for example, he says there is ample opportunity for companies to run development programs that span multiple countries, speeding up timelines while allowing companies to draw on the expertise of a greater number of experts.

“Even China and the FDA [the US Food and Drug Administration] are working more closely together,” he says.

The benefits of this kind of collaboration will become more apparent. “We believe in partnerships because they can help you grow much faster — you can share the risk and reward,” says Biocon’s executive chairperson Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. “And I think for a smaller company, the investment needs get shared, and that helps you grow faster.” As examples, Mazumdar-Shaw points to Biocon’s partnerships beyond its Indian headquarters — with the likes of German pharma firm Sandoz.

The biopharma R&D ecosystem on the ground

To understand how the industry is grappling with these different forces shaping the R&D ecosystem, we spoke to a pharma trade body in the UK.

A closer look

How to maintain a position at the forefront of R&D

As the chief executive of the UK Bioindustry Association, Steve Bates is committed to driving innovation. Established more than 25 years ago, the trade body aims to ensure that the UK continues to be a global leader in R&D, with strong links between laboratories and the market the key focus. Bates’s job is to make this a reality.

“I strive for the UK to be the best place in the world to start, develop and grow a global life science business,” he says.

One area he points to as an example of the UK’s success is what he describes as “long-term stability”. Sustained investment over a number of years — coupled with, for example, R&D tax credits and an integrated healthcare system — has produced a favorable environment in which innovation can flourish. That supportive foundation is key. “We always have to make sure that we are globally competitive on policy,” he says.

Although the pandemic made many aspects of operations more difficult, Bates takes the view that the “virtualization of the world” over the past year has boosted global collaboration because people now know how easily they can connect remotely.

“The ability to transfer ideas around the world is one of the things that makes pharmaceutical products move most rapidly,” says Bates. “I think we should defend and support that capability.”

More Key Insights from the BioPharma Resilience Index and our expert panelists on BioPharma R&D

Video: Biopharma Resilience Index findings: Biopharma R&D