Biopharma must step up for those on the front lines of COVID-19

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While not every biotech can develop countermeasures for COVID-19, nearly all can contribute by providing urgently needed resources to protect the clinicians and other essential workers holding the line against catastrophe, and by making their actions public.

Although several life sciences organizations have already rallied donations from their members, the need hasn’t abated. Many clinics worldwide still have nowhere near the supplies needed to treat the onslaught of COVID-19 patients, let alone protect those treating patients with other conditions.

The COVID-19 crisis has left the doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers facing exposure to SARS-CoV-2 without enough personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep them safe from the highly contagious virus, which they can in turn spread to others.

The problem extends beyond healthcare facilities. Essential workers maintaining food supply chains and other critical infrastructure have been largely left unprotected even as their tasks prevent them from maintaining social distance.

There is also a critical shortage of diagnostic capacity, with strains on the supply of key reagents for the dominant testing technology -- RT-PCR of viral genomic material (see "COVID-19 Diagnostic Testing Tableau").

As an industry that lives and breathes sterile technique, biopharma has an outsized opportunity to make an impact on the PPE shortages.

PPE and reagent manufacturers have made enormous lifts to ramp up production. For example, 3M Co. has doubled production since January, and is poised to double it again over the next 12 months. An undisclosed member of the medical device trade organization AdvaMed that used to provide genomic extraction reagents for 500,000 patients per month now supports 7 million in the same time frame.

Yet the scope of the pandemic, mismanagement by governments, and logistical and legal restrictions have kept the need for donations acute.

The general public has been called upon to dig up any masks, gloves, disinfectants and goggles in their homes and bring them to collection sites set up by local governments or medical centers. Businesses like nail salons that routinely use such items have also contributed.

As an industry that lives and breathes sterile technique, biopharma has an outsized opportunity to make an impact on the PPE shortages, particularly at a time when all but the most essential wet lab experiments have been largely put on hold (see "Labs Pare Down to Essentials").

While government agencies struggle with red tape and questions around how to deploy old PPE stockpiles that may be expired, biopharma's supplies are fresh and functional.

There are plenty of ways companies can contribute. Trade organizations, hospitals and governments have set up collection campaigns for cash, PPE and reagent donations.

MassBio spokesperson Cayley Moynihan said nearly 500 companies offered to donate supplies, services, and expertise through the organization's Life Sciences Emergency Supply Hub, resulting in over 500,000 masks and other PPE items donated.

On Thursday, the Illinois life sciences trade organization iBio announced it had raised over $1 million in monetary donations since it opened its COVID-19 PPE Response Fund four weeks ago, and itemized the PPE it had purchased with the funds, as well as the donated products it collected -- including 3,620 N95 masks, 2,430 surgical masks and 85,000 units of viral testing transport medium.

Members of Chinese American biotech organizations like BayHelix and the Chinese American Biopharmaceutical Society (CABS) have also stepped up with donation campaigns. CABS has reported the amounts and types of donations it has received, and how these resources have been disbursed.

The U.K. government has put out a call for biopharma to help increase testing capacity by supplying materials, equipment and laboratory capacity, as well as new testing methods.

Companies can also coordinate donations directly with medical centers like the University of California San Francisco. Centers with an abundance of supplies are in turn working to send their overflow to under-resourced sites.

However, most donations have been anonymous, meaning companies are missing an important opportunity to spur peer companies to act, and spell out to the public the biopharma industry’s contribution to the effort.

This is yet another example of the industry being slow to communicate its activities, at a time when a worried public is largely in the dark about the massive mobilization by pharmas to help solve the crisis (see "Doing Right is Not Enough.The Public Needs To Know").

In a time when fear of scarcity boosts hoarding instincts in individuals and corporations, we need industry leaders to lead by example, publicly donating key resources to protect those on the front lines.

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