Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus of innovation within the biotech sector was skewed towards cancer, precision drugs and gene therapy, but COVID-19 has pointed out that there are more areas which need attention. Dr Jeremy Levin, Chairman and CEO, Ovid Therapeutics and former board member of Biocon recently launched a book titled ‘Biotechnology in the time of COVID-19’. He talks about the scope of the biotech industry, the need to expand areas of research and how COVID-19 has not affected ongoing research activities across the globe, in an interaction with Usha Sharma
Recently, you have published a book titled, ‘Biotechnology in the time of COVID-19’. Please give us a brief insight summary of its contents.
The book is a narrative of the opening chapter of the war against COVID-19. It tells the inside story of how the biotechnology industry pivoted to face the pandemic. It is told in the voice of individual leaders, each who had the chance to respond to the disaster unfolding around them. The book demonstrates just how the biotechnology industry rises to the occasion and is a strategic asset for each nation and the world.
The book features around 47 leaders of the biotech industry. How did you make a choice about whom to feature? How have their contributions enhanced the biotech sector?
Those chosen were a mix of large and small company executives, industry leaders and individuals who know the biotechnology industry and have observed or helped stimulate its growth. These are individuals who know more about biotechnology than many and are representatives of the spirit and capabilities of the biotechnology industry.
How has the novel coronavirus accentuated the need for R&D, not only in India but also in the global biotech sector?
Until the beginning of 2020 more than 50 per cent of investment in innovation was focused on cancer research. There was nearly no capital flowing into research for coronavirus (and many other viruses), nor in other important areas like stroke or congestive heart failure. The pivot to COVID-19 demonstrates the need for research to focus on important areas beyond those that are the most easily recognised as having a need.
Even amidst the COVID-19 crisis across the globe, three areas continue to see research and innovation within the biotech sector, i.e. cancer, precision oncology drugs and gene therapy. Can you comment on this?
These segments are very important, but COVID-19 has been a wakeup call. We need to focus on areas that are beyond these three segments. More balanced investment and consideration to other key areas will now be seen. We see the beginning of a resetting of investments into other areas beyond those three areas.
How is the Indian biotech industry progressing? What are your suggestions to gain the lead in the world as far as biotech is concerned?
The Indian biotech sector lags behind Europe, the US and China. It will continue to do so unless steps are taken to accelerate changes in the basic infrastructure of the industry. That said, there are shining examples of biotechnology companies such as Biocon, which are globally pre-eminent and leaders. However, despite excellent education and marvellous minds, there is a gap in India between what is possible and what exists. A part of that gap is caused by the necessary and important requirement to secure and deliver low-cost generic medicines to deal with infectious diseases, cancer and diabetes for the majority of the Indian population. That first step – medicines for the population – is essential. However, to become a leader in biotechnology and take advantage of all of the incredible researchers, talent and capabilities, many things need to be established. These include a modernised capital market and local and international tax and monetary incentives to encourage capital to flow into high-risk endeavours of biotechnology innovation. This needs to be coupled with reforms in the guidelines and regulations to ensure intellectual property protection. There are many steps and if one wants to make biotechnology a strategic asset of India, then the government would be advised to convene leaders such as Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw in a decision-making forum to not just learn from what they did to succeed but also to formulate a strategic plan for India.
Globally, how many potential biotech leads are in development?
As of June 15, there are over 570 programmes including over 150 new vaccine programmes and more than 170 novel antivirals. India has six of these in development. The United States has over 270. The full pipeline can be found at https://www.bio.org/policy/human-health/vaccines-biodefense/coronavirus/pipeline-tracker
Recently, AstraZeneca has signed a contract with European governments to supply up to 400 million doses of its potential vaccine against the coronavirus, which is developed being developed in collaboration with the University of Oxford. Can you comment on this development? What are the key takeaways that can be derived from the coronavirus crisis?
This is a very encouraging development. We obviously hope that this vaccine, and others, will be developed. Whatever happens though with the clinical studies I think its important to applaud the creative manner in which AstraZeneca, the University of Oxford, the National Health Systems and the UK and European Agencies, all collaborated.
Viruses don’t recognise borders, neither should collaborations to defeat a pandemic.
Do you see the impact of the coronavirus pandemic hitting the research for new drugs in the short-term and long-term?
No, to the contrary, investors, governments and the populations now are beginning to acknowledge the critical nature of biotechnology. This can continue to set the stage for even more tremendous innovation. However, if we return to the pre-COVID-19 era of chastising and penalising the industry, there will be little incentive for the industry to do what it does best: benefit mankind.
Tell us about the future of the global biotech industry. What suggestions would you like to give to the industry to create a thriving R&D ecosystem?
As I have said before, the biotechnology industry is a strategic asset for a nation and the world. It holds the key to curing disease, insuring we can grow enough food to feed the expanding global population and cleaning our environment. I think that the nation that shifts its education system to include biotechnology in schools and universities, revamps its capital markets to accommodate and attract investors, streamlines and strengthens intellectual property protections and develops a robust and efficient regulatory approval process will go a long way to kick-starting a thriving R&D environment.