The urgency of battling COVID-19 spurred on a redefinition of cross-industry collaboration in the healthcare universe. Diverse teams of medical experts, government officials and pharmaceutical executives alike came together to meet the need to manufacture and distribute the coronavirus vaccines – and did so in a matter of months. For a process that typically takes several years, this working model is nothing short of extraordinary. It also set the precedent for how teams should look to work in the future.
On April 30, I moderated the second installment of the BERG Healthcare Exchange, a quarterly series where a group of the top minds across the industry discuss the issues and trends impacting the future of healthcare and drug development amid COVID-19.
For the session, entitled “What We Learned from COVID-19: Unifying the Healthcare Ecosystem to Prepare for Next Pandemic,” the panelists and I explored new ways of working and the power of partnerships across the industry in a post-COVID world.
Below are excerpts from the thought-provoking discussion.
Robert Reiss: What real lessons have we learned from COVID-19?
Dr. Niven Narain [President, Co-Founder and CEO, BERG]: Since our last session in October of last year, we’ve been even more sensitized to some of the overarching themes to what this pandemic has led to. One theme is that we can do much better in healthcare. We can drive much more efficiency through how we collaborate with each other, and how stakeholders take this lens to parse out how biotechs, drug companies, governments, and patient advocacy groups truly start to understand how we can be more efficient with cost and time and development.
This gap between the stop point economically for the world, and the start point for the need to drive a mainstream understanding of biology, that is the true opportunity of the future and in bringing together minds for this panel.
Kendra Bahneman Haywood [Executive Director, Director of Fundraising and Board Chair, Alliance of Families Fighting Pancreatic Cancer [AFFPC]: We learned two major lessons. From patients affected by pancreatic cancer, as well as their families, there has been a fear of going to the hospital to get treatment over the past year. This is consistent with other nonprofits we’ve spoken to as well. With a disease like pancreatic cancer, you’re dealing with a life-or-death situation that’s extremely timely. Healthcare organizations in general need to combat this fear by developing a specific task force or unit just for COVID, while other specialists work on keeping these patients safe and calm.
Second, we need to think about how we reach patients and their families to offer support. We do several patient advocacy events, which had to come to a complete stop during COVID as these kinds of gatherings are hard to do online. As a nonprofit, there is a need to think about how to convey to patients that we’re here for them without actually being physically next to them. Reaching people wasn’t the same, and that was a real shame.
Dr. Chas Bountra [Pro-Vice Chancellor for Innovation and Professor of Translational Medicine and Chief Scientist of Structural Genomics Consortium Oxford, Nuffield Department of Medicine, University of Oxford]: In the U.K., a couple of our academics created a company called Vaccitech. In March of last year, when the pandemic hit us, we got together with the senior leaders of Oxford, and then we pulled in the U.K. government, funders, regulators, AstraZeneca and asked, ‘how can we get together and generate a vaccine as quickly as possible?’ It is amazing to me what they all managed to achieve in ten months what would normally happen in ten years.
When we bring together all of the stakeholders – academics, researchers, the government, regulators, funders, etc. – we can do the impossible. On top of that, the agreement with AstraZeneca is that the vaccine will be given at cost to everyone in low-, middle-, and high-income countries, and after the pandemic, it will be given to low- and middle-income countries. That’s amazing for a large pharma company to agree to that.
Dr. Sophia George [Research Associate Professor, University of Miami Health System and Founder, North South Breast Ovary Health Initiative]: We learned about the blind spots. For one, silos were broken last year. Some countries were able to work at warp speed and left others behind to catch up. While we’re moving so fast and being a beneficiary now is great, countries that are most desperate without resources to cope weren’t pulled along in the process. Clearly, the pandemic opened up already existing disparities even more. How do we remember these people? That’s the question I hope we address when things calm down. Low-income countries and communities of color have been impacted the most by COVID-19. Yes, we broke down the silos, but we built new ones. That is very concerning to me.
Daniel Arbess [CEO, Xerion Investments]: The clinical trial system has gone through dramatic changes in the pandemic as well. Old-fashioned trials had to be bypassed. Trials happened online instead with patients reporting symptoms, and external control groups. This is a game changer for how trials can be done.
Breakthrough technologies, such as the work that BERG is doing, actually mapped the COVID-19 disease and identified the genetic polymorphism that led directly to why ethnic minorities suffer worse outcomes when they got the disease. The research identified therapeutic interventions that could improve outcomes for those minorities. It’s powerful stuff!
Robert Reiss: Share a rapid fire of two-three solutions to these issues.
Dr. Niven Narain: We need a commission with transcontinental representation. One that can look like a five-person panel with an arc of financial and regulatory. We were all obviously ill-prepared for this crisis, and we need to understand the true access points that we did and didn’t reach.
Kendra Bahneman Haywood: We should form targeted taskforces to respond to different issues in addition to COVID-19, like cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. Build a supply of financial resources for people suffering life-threatening conditions who can’t afford expensive treatments. Conduct more studies geared towards people of Jewish faith and African Americans. Both groups face harsher consequences of contracting various diseases than the majority of the world.
Daniel Arbess: There needs to be more collaboration that involves multiple disciplines to think inductively together, and results needs to be universal in application. For pancreatic cancer patients, there’s a pandemic every single day. We should take what we can accomplish with wide problems and narrow them down.
Dr. Sophia George: User experience should be better integrated. Transdisciplinary approaches should be normalized. And there should be a greater focus on infrastructure building and investment. We have a lot of it here as well as in some developing spaces, but we need to sustain those relationships. We can’t wait for the next crisis. And lastly, there should be more room for vulnerability, for other people to come to the table to share their experiences.
Dr. Chas Bountra: Someone early on the pandemic said that no one is safe until we are all safe. I think we need to all start thinking about these global health challenges. They aren’t just in Massachusetts or the U.K. What’s happening in India could potentially filter out into the rest of the world all over again. We have to get the whole world to create global solutions.
Robert Reiss: If you were president of the world for 90 days, what action would you take?
Dr. Chas Bountra: I would produce 7 billion vaccines, or enough for every single person on the planet.
Kendra Bahneman Haywood: Instead of finger pointing to other countries, I would form an international coalition so that everyone is sharing ideas and solutions rather than keeping it to themselves.
Daniel Arbess: I would convene an organization with a mandate in the interest of humanity. The pandemic should have enabled or inspired us to view the world in the same way as when we saw the first images of Earth from space. We’re all on this planet together, we’re all human. We collectively failed to rise to that level.
Dr. Sophia George: I would bring “everyone” together in one room. But who are those people? I would like to hear the voices of those that face the highest barriers, those who feel that no matter what decisions we make, they won’t benefit from those decisions. We would need those two sets of groups to come together so that we aren’t solving the problems they don’t have – but are examining the problems they do have and finding solutions.
Dr. Niven Narain: I view a lack of healthcare as the largest risk to national security. We need to bring the defense industry and the healthcare industry together, and we need to shift how doctors and scientists think. What we have seen over the past year is that anything is possible when the world comes together and we need keep the “get stuff done” attitude that we have adopted since the pandemic as a crucial part of the future of healthcare.