By Niven R. Narain, PhD
It’s fair to say that the entire world has become more fluent in the language of biology in the last few years. In 2019, to most people, a pandemic was merely a science fiction story, a movie thriller, or something they learned about in history class. Now, anyone can knowledgeably discuss personal protective equipment (PPE), antigens, and how to “flatten the curve.” For those of us in biotech, the pandemic also taught us lessons and simultaneously showed us how much more we still need to discover about the biology of how diseases and viruses work in the body.
As we continue to fight against COVID-19, it is clear that the biotech industry as a whole learned a great deal about the underlying science. But is also my hope that we learned about our shared humanity and what it takes to come together and get things done. By acknowledging what we did right, leaning into our humanity, and utilizing the tools we have at our disposal to predict the next global health crisis, we can do more than survive—we can adapt and thrive. But we have to be ready.
So, how exactly does the biotech industry prepare for the next pandemic? By knowing what is coming the next time around and utilizing the lessons learned from COVID-19.
Recognizing the looming threat
The next global health threat humanity will face in the next 10 years will be a battle with microbes: more pronounced and resistant viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Microbial innovation, always a threat, will be enhanced by climate change.
The ecosystem shifts at a microbial level, but not at a human one. For example, microbes are worsening water quality, but everyone continues to source their water as they have. This more frequent and unfortunate convergence of environment and man will create a scenario in which our greatest enemy is one that we can’t see.
So, what do we do? We need to observe and comprehend how our bodies and our brains react to new and intensified stresses. With this knowledge, we can improve our ability to recognize potential threats, make predictions, take precautions, and save lives. Beyond understanding our biology, we need to use all the weapons in our arsenal, and one of our best defenses, consistently proven in the pandemic, is artificial intelligence (AI).
Utilizing AI-powered biotech to model out what these new attacks are going to look like gives us an upper hand in preparedness. When we know what’s coming, we can work on developing a counterattack, or at least figure out how to get out of the way.
There will also be fewer biotech companies doing more of the focused work. With inflation on the rise and governments having less money per capita to provide for each citizen, there may be less government funding available for research. Also, increased mergers and acquisitions activity means more consolidation. There are still about 500 public biotech companies, but they might be reduced to about 300. The companies with staying power will likely be the ones that can provide reimbursable products and measurable outcomes. The largest pharma firms, which now include about 50 companies, may be winnowed down to 35. The survivors will be fewer but stronger and more focused.
Taking inspiration from the COVID-19 response
As AI becomes more focused and efficient, and as the pharma and biotech industries consolidate to survive, it’s important to also consider and reflect on the successes of the pandemic response.
Operation Warp Speed was formed to encourage public-private partnerships (PPPs) to enable faster approval and production of vaccines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Having seen the kind of unparalleled successes that have occurred in COVID-19 vaccine development, I believe we are capable of achieving even more if we sustain the pandemic-instigated blurring of lines between government, academia, and the drug industry.
There are dissenting views. For example, there are concerns that PPPs invite conflicts of interest or risk legal complications. Such opinions, however, serve only to prevent progress. We can find great success in replicating the models we adapted to in the pandemic’s darkest days, and using them as learning tools.
Working in a collaborative fashion increases our shared humanity, and it’s critical that we keep that humanity in the forefront of our minds as we all move forward.
Leveraging biological insights to boost discovery
Lastly, a comprehensive understanding of patient biology will be the ultimate key to unlocking insights that will catalyze drug discovery for some of our most challenging and debilitating diseases. Any biotech leader should strongly advocate for involving more people without diseases in clinical trials, to learn more about the biology of what keeps people healthy.
By using AI to overlay the biological profile for people with no known illness over that for people with the same characteristics (such as age and race) who have developed an illness, we can learn about certain features and mutations that may contribute to staying healthy. By discovering mutations in people who didn’t develop cancer, we can make radical discoveries. Identifying a certain protein or a metabolite in their blood could lead to the development of a new line of drugs. As we study the factors that are maintaining health, we gain a window into what can be used to treat disease. It’s about being proactive instead of reactive.
Overall, we’re heading for a change in the biotech industry. We have the tools and experience, the ability to collaborate, and the ability to solve global problems by applying our combined intelligence. Yet as we join forces to fight diseases and microbes, it’s critical that we not forget our humanity.
The central impetus for the biotech industry’s work is to bring meaningful improvements to the lives of patients. If we’re all smart, we can make improvements that are just as meaningful in the lives of our colleagues, our collaborators, and our whole society. It’s time to move forward together, better.
Niven R. Narain, PhD, is co-founder, president, and CEO of BERG, a clinical-stage, artificial intelligence–powered biotechnology company.