Collaborative Capitalism in the Fight Against COVID-19

Teaming up to successfully vanquish a global pandemic

Global efforts to jointly develop vaccines and therapies to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, as well as treatments for patients infected with it, are unmatched and remarkable not only in speed but in scope. Indeed, the collaboration between Pfizer and BioNTech produced the first vaccine approved for use in the West. This potentially lifesaving dual-enterprise product received emergency authorization in the United Kingdom on Dec. 2. The first vaccinations in the U.S. were administered on Dec. 14, and shipments of the drug arrived in all 50 states on the same day.

But scores of other collaborations, while not garnering headlines, are ongoing. Big Pharma companies, biotech and bioscience entities, academic institutions, and governments are working together to battle the pandemic on several fronts, from the laboratory through global manufacturing and distribution of drugs and therapies. Aside from the vital health benefits offered by these cooperative endeavors, the ventures are resulting in the development of innovative supply links promising even more efficient production systems in the future, which will be beneficial beyond the COVID-19 crisis.

“While the industry has always been characterized by collaborations and deal-making, we have seen an unprecedented level of cooperation surrounding the work on both treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19,” says Brad Michel, Life Sciences industry lead for North America at consultancy Accenture. “These partnerships — both big and small — are showing us the art of the possible, for how the industry can come together to solve our most complex problems at an accelerated pace.”

Examples of such strange bedfellows abound, including the World Health Organization’s coordination of more than 120 scientists, physicians, manufacturers, and funders worldwide to collaborate in the rapid development and availability of a safe and effective vaccine. In partnership with vaccine manufacturers, the WHO also has spearheaded the COVAX initiative to provide 172 countries with equitable access to inoculations.

Coming Together for the Benefit of All

Even traditionally cutthroat global competitors have put down their swords to collaborate on a vaccine. Case in point: U.K.-based GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and Sanofi S.A. in France. GSK is contributing its established pandemic adjuvant technology and Sanofi its S-protein COVID-19 antigen. Sanofi’s antigen stimulates the body’s immune system to fight against the coronavirus. GSK’s adjuvant technology also induces an immune response; as well, it may reduce the volume of vaccine protein required per dose, allowing for more doses to be produced in a shorter time span. This particular vaccine is expected to go up for approval in the first half of 2021.

The partners’ vaccine is just one in a portfolio of several vaccines supported by the U.S. government’s Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership aiming to facilitate the development, manufacturing, and distribution of 300 million doses of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. At the same time, strategic collaborations are underway between bioscience companies and academic institutions. Brii Biosciences, for example, is providing funding and its expertise to Columbia University to support scientific research in its laboratories. Together, these pioneering corporate-academic partners are cooperatively creating a holistic approach to COVID-19 diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

A More Collaborative Future?

Parallel collaborations are underway to prepare global manufacturing supply chains to produce and distribute millions of COVID-19 pharmaceutical vials, stoppers, and syringes. Approximately 5.6 billion people will need one or more inoculations — for many of the vaccines, it seems likely that two doses will be needed — and governments across the world are vying to get their share. The U.S. government, for instance, provided approximately $2.1 billion to GSK and Sanofi to support both the manufacturing scale-up and delivery of 100 million doses, in addition to the development of the companies’ vaccine. That some of those funds are earmarked for production and distribution is key, since streamlining the international supply chain for crucial therapies will add immeasurably to health outcomes worldwide, in the near term and beyond.

These varied cooperative efforts are not without risk. Each partner brings to the table a collection of patents, trade secrets, and other intellectual property that may be directly or indirectly exposed to the other partner. For example, pharmaceutical company Roche and biotech corporation Gilead Sciences have partnered to develop a treatment for severe cases of COVID-19 pneumonia. The companies have combined their respective drugs — Gilead’s broad-spectrum antiviral medication remdesivir and Roche’s interleukin-6 inhibitor Actemra (used to treat rheumatoid arthritis) — into a single medication which recently demonstrated positive results in Phase 3 clinical trials. “As more information about COVID-19 pneumonia becomes available in these unprecedented times, it is more important than ever to work together to fight this disease,” Levi Garraway, Roche’s chief medical officer and head of Global Product Development, said of the pairing.

While such efforts pose certain challenges, they also bring substantial rewards — even some that extend beyond the discovery of life-saving therapeutics. A survey of 2,700 non-COVID patients by Accenture suggests the industry’s reputation has improved during the crisis: 45% of patients say their trust in the pharmaceutical industry has increased during the pandemic.

That’s good news not just for drug companies, but possibly for businesses in other industry sectors as well. “The pandemic has created countless instances of business transformation that all companies can learn from and sustain, as they suggest the value of collaboration for the greater good,” Michel says. “The hope is that the industry sees the value in these collaborations and applies similar models to other disease areas.”