Can the response to Covid-19 help address other global challenges?

One of the positives we’ll take from the pandemic is a new appreciation of what the scientific community can achieve to address a global crisis in such a short period of time. The response to COVID-19 showed new levels of international collaboration, information exchange, and technology transfer. We’ve managed to create and distribute multiple successful vaccines in the space of a year – a process that normally takes ten years from the initial discovery through to clinical trials and approval from regulators before manufacturing begins.

The global scientific response to COVID-19 kicked-off with the rapid sequencing of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the early days of its emergence, which was shared internationally between scientists and provided the base from which therapeutics and vaccines could be developed. The World Health Organisation rapidly became a central point of reference for knowledge on COVID-19, creating a global R&D roadmap, a database of vaccine candidates, and sharing knowledge of the virus around the world.

This jumping-off point laid a strong foundation for the development of vaccines in record time. Rapid access to information about the virus, high levels of up-front investment from governments, and the pivoting of researchers around the world to address the disease massively accelerated vaccine development. Manufacturing also began prior to regulatory approval, with sites spread around the world. The different phases of clinical trials were overlapped to study vaccine toxicity and efficacy in large sample populations at speed. Overall, the pandemic has necessitated a new approach to vaccine and therapeutic development, made possible in part by universities and industry finding new ways to collaborate.

New forms of collaboration in response to COVID-19

The pandemic has had a profound impact on the way universities and industry approach collaboration. Over the last few months at IN-PART, we’ve hosted a series of live Q&A discussions with experts from industry and academia to identify what lessons they’re taking from the pandemic, and whether the new approaches utilised in response to COVID-19 can help address other global challenges.

Some of the biggest impacts identified in our discussions include the almost complete migration to digital communications, a shift to non-exclusive royalty-free licensing agreements, and the open exchange of information and expertise – all in order to translate research from academia into interventions as quickly (and safely) as possible. In one of our discussions, Kenny Simmen, VP of Scientific Innovation in Infectious Diseases and Vaccines at Janssen summed this up:

We now have an expectation of being able to exchange information rapidly and efficiently that is changing people’s timelines and expectations; that interconnectedness will surely increase, and there will be a more rapid translation of R&D and academic findings into solutions and products”.

From the academic perspective, Dr Hamid Merchant, a pharmaceutical scientist and subject lead in pharmacy at the University of Huddersfield, agreed, adding that the pandemic has highlighted the importance of funding being provided at the earliest stage possible for new intervention development:

If the venture capital funds are not coming in, if early support is not available in time, then lots of ideas and technologies emerging from universities go into open access immediately, which is good for sharing knowledge but this makes it so difficult later for the industry to exploit on the IP and commercialise it.”

Support for academics with early investment and protections will be key for addressing major health challenges in the future, and hopefully we will see more venture capital playing a key role in philanthropic investments that can support the transition of technologies from an early idea to a commercial product.

Another impact of the pandemic on university-industry collaboration has been the rise of non-exclusive, royalty-free (NERF) licensing of university-developed technologies. Whilst this is not a new approach to research commercialisation, collaborations around COVID-19 technologies are being forged with this in mind to ensure rapid deployment and equitable global access. This has included sharing blueprints of physical interventions, such as ventilators, under non-exclusive licences to allow rapid development. And of course, the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is a perfect example of royalty-free licensing that has allowed a rapid global rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Whilst we can identify the impacts of the pandemic on university-industry collaboration as generally positive, it must be noted that they are not without controversy. The world has seen how rapidly we can develop successful new disease interventions, but the rapid pace is unlikely to be sustainable without widespread support from governments. This is something that must be considered when analysing our responses to other global challenges where our responses may not have been so rapid and widespread.

The open sharing of information and the potential for waiving patent rights on innovations such as the COVID-19 vaccines also require complex negotiations between different parties, and the needs of academics, universities and industry all must be considered. Despite this, there is much that can be drawn from the new approaches to collaboration in response to COVID-19, that can be applied to other global challenges.

Keeping the momentum going

Whilst we are likely still a long way from the ‘end’ of the pandemic, the advancing vaccine rollout has marked the beginning of a slow return to life as it was pre-2020. However, there are key lessons we’ve learnt from the pandemic, especially around our response to a major, rapidly evolving global healthcare challenge. As such, it’s important we take the time to consider whether what we’ve learnt, as well as the rapid response to COVID-19 across the community, could be applied to other global challenges.

The first thing to consider is that not every global challenge is the same. Different challenges require different approaches, and require input from different sectors of the research community. For example, the development of vaccines was able to be accelerated as the initial research, clinical trial procedures, approvals and manufacturing were able to be overlapped. Yet the process for bringing a new energy technology to market that addresses our reliance on fossil fuels has a completely different pathway, which may not be able to be accelerated in the same way. In addition to this, whilst the pandemic has proven that the university-industry community is capable of rapid development and deployment of interventions, the pace of work and the pivoting of research is not necessarily sustainable long-term and raises the question of whether we should push our community through that on a regular basis.

It’s important to note that the rapid response to the COVID-19 pandemic had quite different motivations and incentives compared to other ongoing global challenges. Public pressure was high due to the sudden massive upheavals to daily life across the world as we worked together to mitigate the spread of the virus by altering our behaviour. Governments were also incentivising research and development of therapeutics and interventions, which provided further motivation, as well as providing funding to scale up manufacturing of vaccines ahead of approval. Businesses were shut down or drastically altered their methods of working, providing further incentive to address the disease on an economic front. This meant that there was an ideal cocktail of commercial and social values that drove a rapid response that is absent in other global issues. For example, there is public and governmental pressure for businesses to move towards sustainable manufacturing, but it is not yet a global call with financial support for every company or research facility to begin addressing it as a priority that requires a rapid fix.

One important consideration that must be applied to other global challenges is how successful the royalty-free, non-exclusive (NERF) licensing agreements that carved a path for rapid vaccines development, have been. The situation that AstraZeneca now finds itself in will be the test of this. The NERF licensing approach has meant the deployment of successful interventions has been rapid, along with more equitable access to treatments as the world has come together to meet the global aim of overcoming the pandemic. Whilst it may not be feasible for every type of technology or challenge, this open sharing of technology and information, as well as non-for-profit licensing models, will go a long way to a more global approach to the challenges we face.

What other global challenges can we address?

According to the WHO, once 70% of the global population is vaccinated, the COVID-19 pandemic will be under control. Countries with the highest numbers of vaccinations are seeing fewer hospitalisations and deaths, which will hopefully mean that once we have achieved the target level of vaccinations, we can begin to look beyond this pandemic. This includes considering what global challenges we can begin to address next, and what is already in place to support our university-industry community in this step forward.

The United Nations has identified 17 Sustainable Development Goals, which address global poverty and health, education, sustainable cities and environmental impacts, conflict, clean energy and food systems. Much research around the world, both in universities and within industry R&D, is already working to address these. The UK government, along with key scientific societies, maintains a research fund (the Global Challenges Research Fund) that supports challenge-led interdisciplinary research that supports development issues and ensures a rapid response to emergencies with an urgent research need.

In the face of so many challenges to our planet and society, it might feel a little overwhelming having to pick a single area on which to focus. Earlier this year, we asked our community of industry professionals what they thought the biggest global challenge facing society is. Over 70% of respondents identified climate change and sustainability as what they personally thought of as the biggest global challenge. In addition to this, we also asked what they thought their company identified as the greatest challenge to society, to which 50% also responded the same.

This highlights how much our changing climate and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as the impacts of manufacturing and consumerist behaviour on the environment is at the forefront of public thinking, with increasing global pressure from individuals on governments and policy-makers to drive change. With companies also moving their focus to address their environmental footprint, and the rapidly shrinking timescales in which we can make impactful change to prevent global warming, it seems likely that this will be the next global challenge that we can apply some of the lessons we’ve learnt around collaboration from this pandemic.

With this in mind, IN-PART will soon be launching its next global challenge campaign around sustainability and climate change. We’ll be looking for cutting-edge research, innovation and technologies from universities and research institutes to mobilise and support the university-industry community as they address the challenges around sustainable plastics, polymers and alternatives. The campaign will be launching on 1st November, and you can keep up-to-date via our LinkedIn and Twitter pages.


Written by Ruth Kirk. Edited by Alex Stockham.

Copyrights reserved unless otherwise agreed – IN-PART Publishing Ltd., 2021: ‘Can the response to Covid-19 help address other global challenges?’

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IN-PART Blog - Header image - Response to COVID-19
Image Credit: Randy Fath / Unsplash License

Image Credit: Randy Fath / Unsplash License

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