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COVID-19 has accelerated innovation and experimentation in therapy development and clinical trials

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Sunil Punjabi, Country Speaker & Head of Research Solutions Commercial, Merck India outlines how the COVID-19 pandemic is resetting some priorities for the pharma sector and how the sector will have to transform to build more resilience to tackle healthcare challenges in future. He also speaks about Merck’s contribution to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, in an interview with Lakshmipriya Nair

What are the major lessons that drug makers need to learn from this pandemic to improve resilience and preparedness for pandemics and health emergencies?

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the important role that diagnostics and vaccine development will have in how we deal with pandemics in the future. It is important that we employ as many approaches as possible in identifying a virus as well as in the development of a vaccine or treatment. Diagnostic tests play a critical role here. These tests help physicians determine the presence or absence of a disease in patients, and their findings are used in making treatment decisions. Further to testing, it is key that vaccine developers have an eye on the planning for large-scale production of the therapy.

In the mid to long term, because public health experts have indicated that we will face future pandemics, we must pay attention and consider how our healthcare systems can respond most effectively in the future. In order to do that, we must keep track of the lessons learned during this current global crisis.

How has it forced pharma companies to redraw their business strategies and focus areas?

There are no standard manufacturing templates or processes due to the complexity and diversity of vaccine modalities, which makes production a challenge for every organisation developing COVID-19 vaccines. Manufacturers understand that collaborating with the global scientific community is more important than ever to accelerate vaccine and treatment candidates.

We are supporting many of our customers working on COVID-19 projects through our products and services, which enable more than 35 testing solutions, over 50 different vaccine candidates and more than 20 monoclonal antibody, plasma products and antivirals

Can you elaborate on the long-term changes that will be inevitable for pharma companies/businesses to remain relevant and competitive in the post pandemic world?

While it is still too early to talk about long-term changes required, some of the areas that organisations could be looking are supply chain resilience (e.g., leveraging agile supply networks with the ability to move goods through different trade lanes), digital tool and technology adoption, as well as a workforce that is agile and adapts quickly to the new ways of working.

This crisis also highlights the need for a strong regulatory organisation and agile framework to ensure efficacy, accuracy and patient safety. We have found that deep relationships built on respect, trust and collaboration with the logistics industry and government officials are critical.

What kind of course correction and reinvention are we witnessing as a result of this pandemic, especially in pharma R&D?

COVID-19 has accelerated innovation and experimentation in therapy development and clinical trials. An eye on commercialisation and greater engagement with regulatory authorities has also become important.

With the current COVID-19 vaccine candidates, many developers are leveraging already approved virus platforms to accelerate this complex development process from ten years down to one, applying existing technology from previous vaccine development programs to this novel coronavirus sequence. For example, our collaboration to support Oxford University’s vaccine candidate leveraged an existing platform that was used for vaccines against rabies and Ebola, among others. Similarly, our support for Baylor College of Medicine’s vaccine candidates both repurposed a SARS vaccine candidate and stemmed from our previous collaborative work to develop a vaccine targeting schistosomiasis, a deadly waterborne disease carried by parasites. This strategy will undoubtedly continue to accelerate numerous vaccine development processes while preserving their safety and efficacy going forward.

With our network of global technical experts, we stand ready to help researchers and pharma companies in India in accelerating their research, testing, process development and scaling to implementation of vaccine manufacturing

What are the challenges for the sector as it navigates through the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic is not over. Manufacturing and distribution of vaccines will continue to be a key priority in 2021. Governments must continue to rise to the challenge, enacting a mass mobilisation to secure critical supplies and preventing panic with a comprehensive approach spanning resources, services and information. The top three challenges remain keeping the public health and medical system going, keeping productivity high for critical materials and medicines in this time of social distancing, and bringing diagnostics, treatments and vaccines forward.

COVID-19 has emerged as one of the biggest global health challenges. So, tell us about Merck’s contributions to tackle this pandemic?

We are supporting many of our customers working on COVID-19 projects through our products and services, which enable more than 35 testing solutions, over 50 different vaccine candidates and more than 20 monoclonal antibody, plasma products and antivirals.

The products, services and expertise we provide, such as readily deployable biomanufacturing platforms and biosafety testing services, will help manufacturing at scale to address the current pandemic. We launch thousands of new products every year.

Leveraging our digital technologies, Merck can support customers in advancing research, biologics testing and manufacturing, ultimately improving the time to market for vaccines and therapeutics. Synthia – a computer-aided approach – searches possible pathways for target molecules to accelerate drug discovery for researchers. Our LANEXO System helps diminish labour intensive data management in the lab and increase scientific productivity and compliance. By offering flexibility in vaccine production and diagnostic manufacturing, we support the reduction of inventory and costs.

Where does India fit into Merck’s global vision? Do you have any plans to ramp up your offerings for India’s market? Any significant investment plans in the coming fiscal?

Merck is here for the long term. We have been in India for more than 50 years. One of our nine M Lab Collaborations Centres is in Bangalore. Last year, we opened a high-tech skill development centre at CSIRIMTECH, Chandigarh. Here, students and researchers learn the latest genome editing and single-molecule biomolecule biomarker detection technologies from Merck experts. With our network of global technical experts, we stand ready to help researchers and pharma companies in India in accelerating their research, testing, process development and scaling to implementation of vaccine manufacturing.

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