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In response to the outbreak, governments around the world have put strict measures in place to limit the spread of the virus – Italy was the first country to order a country-wide lock down, France closed its borders and PM Boris Johnson in the UK has ordered that everyone stay at home and only go outside for essentials and exercise.

COVID-19: challenges facing the biotech industry

Without a doubt, restriction of movement and travel will have a significant effect on the economy, businesses and the supply chain. Take the pharmaceutical industry as an example. China has a 12.5% share in world trade, and now that its factories are closed and there is a ban on travel, companies are unable to export products. On the other end of the supply chain, companies cannot source raw materials made in China for medications, impacting drug supply. The same goes for biopharma and biotech companies.

And there are challenges closer to home as well: working remotely and social distancing has had a significant effect on many types of businesses. For those in the science community, isolating and working in this new way means productivity is seriously limited. There are some jobs where working remotely presents problems, and science is one of them. Scientists need to be at the bench to continue their work; that’s where the equipment is, the safety protocols, and their research.

To control the spread of the virus while continuing to work, labs such as Bluebird Bio have implemented shift working for scientists. One group works in the lab while the other works from home, and then they switch. Meanwhile, research institutes in Italy including the Central Research Laboratories in Genoa, have separated their workers by having them work in different rooms or at least three meters apart. However, with these measures in place, labs are working at 50% capacity or less.

Then there’s the issue of supplies, which are likely to run out in the coming weeks. In fact, there is a general concern within the industry that research projects will be delayed. Most staff in a biotech company work at the bench. Given the measures implemented to reduce the risk of contamination, work is affected, creating a cascade of delayed projects down the pipeline. This creates problems on both sides of the equation. Investors aren’t getting what was promised and researchers need funding to continue their work.

Meeting the challenges together

The effects of the virus can be felt in every part of the biotech industry. Current projects are being delayed, but efforts to control the spread of the virus with a vaccine are hampered as well. After all, development of a vaccine, like any other project, requires scientists to work in a lab. In a bid to speed up the production of a much-needed vaccine, several companies are partnering up. BioNTech, a German biotech and one of the forerunners in the race to manufacture a vaccine against COVID-19 for the public, has created two alliances to tackle the problem – one with Fosun Pharma in China and another with Pfizer. Partnerships between large pharma companies and smaller biotech firms could be the key to pushing experimental vaccines through to human trials and into market quickly, yet safely.

So, how can we minimize disruption to the original project timeline? Companies have had to adjust their ways and work around the problem the virus presents by switching shifts, encouraging social distancing and working remotely to ensure staff safety as well as continue some level of work. Albeit slower, there is still some degree of progress, and software has become central to achieving higher levels of productivity in biotech, as well as across the science community.

Making use of existing data

While a vaccine is the priority at this stage, it is not the only step science must take in the battle against the novel virus. There are also small molecule antiviral medications to consider, as well as producing antibodies to boost passive immunity. Clinical trials take time and given there are already various small molecule antiviral treatments on the market, these might be the first to be used to treat the outbreak. They can be re-purposed or built upon to suit our current needs. For example, remdesivir, an RNA virus therapy, was originally made for Ebola but can also be used for the coronavirus species, since they are also RNA-based. So, re-purposing it for COVID-19 should be no trouble.

Chloroquine is another old drug that could hold some promise. The medication has been used to prevent and treat malaria for decades, and studies have shown that it has a certain degree of efficacy and has a relatively good safety profile to treat pneumonia associated with the virus. Everyone is looking for a ‘cure’, but thanks to Trump, this story got blown out of proportion. While it is positive, it’s important to note that the results were just preliminary, and further trials need to take place before chloroquine can be rolled out as the ‘cure’ to COVID-19.

Powerful cloud software can boost communication and efficiency

We need to approach the outbreak from several different angles to prevent a recurrence. Collaboration will be key as these projects take off, sharing information, comparing notes and ideas will save time, money and effort. These can then be re-directed where they are needed the most. Biotech companies have many different departments and during a pandemic, where many employees are working from home or social distancing, tools to improve connectivity and share knowledge is needed more than ever. That’s where software comes in.

IDBS’ E-WorkBook Cloud provides one central platform where colleagues can access experiments and request tasks of their co-workers with ease. Requests are all in one place, making it clear which ones are a priority, when they need to be completed, and in what order.

And when it comes to looking at re-purposing existing data, all experiment information, including materials, procedures, controls and equipment is stored in one place, so researchers can locate and re-use the data at any time. This approach has the potential to streamline the process of re-purposing medications. There’s no need to repeat the experiments and the results can be shared with other departments to speed up their research.

Real-time reporting aids compliance

On top of boosting collaboration, our software enables scientists to report in real time, flagging risks before they balloon into problems and taking decisive action quickly when it counts.

In biotechnology, regulations are strict, and companies need to demonstrate that guidelines have been followed at every stage of the process. With data and experiment notes scattered in multiple locations and formats, this becomes very time-consuming. But with all relevant information stored in a single, secure location, meeting regulatory requirements is no longer an arduous process. Reporting becomes efficient, saving hours of scientists’ time. Considering the race to find an answer to COVID-19, the need for efficiency should not go unrecognized.

The E-WorkBook Cloud enables scientists to search for data with context quickly, for instance, to see the bioreactor run conditions and how they can affect the product or compare batches and results.

Improving data accuracy

Researching a vaccine or another type of biological therapy produces huge quantities of complex data that needs to be continually organized, managed, and stored where it can be found easily later. Mishandling materials can lead to errors and compromise data quality. Additionally, all the information gathered needs to have context and be integrated. With the E-WorkBook Cloud platform, experiment information including materials, process parameters and equipment used is all fully searchable and integrated to form a coherent picture of the experiment. Researchers can identify trends and patterns in the data and analyze relevant links early in the development process.

Biotechnology must find a balance between speed and accuracy. There’s no point rushing the science if the resulting report is not correct. Aside from the amount of time wasted before the error is spotted, there’s the additional time it would take to re-do the work. When you’re racing to find a vaccine for a pandemic, there isn’t any time to waste. Centralizing data helps to maintain accuracy and safeguard data integrity. By having the right controls in place, such as multi-factor authentication, nobody unauthorized can access the data. This also prevents improper changes to the data. All steps and actions are recorded, ensuring traceability and making audits much easier.

While many online and cloud computing tools are seeing an upsurge in the current climate, including collaboration tools Zoom, Slack and Skype, IDBS’ software takes the potential for teamwork in the biotech space to the next level. It answers the need for simpler cross-domain communication as well as productivity, accuracy and compliance with regulations. With a powerful enterprise-ready software, finding a solution to the current health crisis should be much easier, and a vaccine against COVID-19, or even a future epidemic, could be out to market sooner than anyone had hoped.

References

Bell, J. (2020). In hard-hit Seattle, coronavirus pushes biotechs to a new normal. BioPharmaDive. Available at: https://www.biopharmadive.com/news/coronavirus-hard-hit-seattle-biotech-new-normal/574411/ [accessed 23rd March 2020].

Betuel, E. (2020). Chloroquine: the strange story behind the “cure” for COVID-19 that’s going viral. Inverse. Available at: https://www.inverse.com/mind-body/chloroquine [accessed 23rd March 2020]

Harrison, C. (2020). Coronavirus puts srug repurposing on the fast track. Nature Biotechnology. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41587-020-00003-1 [accessed 23rd March 2020]

Kumar, S. (2020). Coronavirus pandemic will disrupt international supply chains. Chemistry World. Available at: https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/coronavirus-pandemic-will-disrupt-international-supply-chains/4011329.article [accessed 23rd March 2020].

Lowe, D. (2020). Covid-19 small molecule therapies reviewed. Science Translational Medicine. Available at: https://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2020/03/06/covid-19-small-molecule-therapies-reviewed [accessed 23rd March 2020].

Tatelbaum, J. (2020). Hopes of a coronavirus vaccine mount as three key biotech players make progress. CNBC. Availble at: https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/17/hopes-of-a-coronavirus-vaccine-mount-as-three-key-biotech-players-make-progress.html [accessed 23rd March 2020].

Vilaca, L. (2020). Italian researchers fear long-lasting harm to science from coronavirus lockdown. Chemistry World. Available at: https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/italian-researchers-fear-long-lasting-harm-to-science-from-coronavirus-lockdown/4011360.article [accessed 23rd March 2020].

Yang, X., Tian, Z. and Gao, J. (2020). Breakthrough: Chloroquine phosphate has shown apparent efficacy in treatment of COVID-19 associated pneumonia in clinical studies. BioScience Trends. 2020; 14(1):72-73. Available at: https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/bst/14/1/14_2020.01047/_pdf/-char/en [accessed 23rd March 2020]