What can Ireland’s life sciences sector learn from Covid-19?

10 Jun 2020

Image: © Songkhla Studio/Stock.adobe.com

Barry Heavey examines the Covid-19 response from Ireland’s life sciences scene and discusses what can be learned from the crisis.

Covid-19 is a global crisis, evolving at unprecedented speed and scale. Ireland’s life sciences industry is at the epicentre of developing tests and treatments and getting them to the people that need them around the world.

Never before have our biopharma, medical device and diagnostics supply chains and operations been so vital. As the life sciences industry in Ireland works, invests and collaborates tirelessly to fast-track testing and treatment for Covid-19, it must also continue to advance pipelines and rethink ways of bringing treatments to patients.

It is reassuring that, so far, they are performing above and beyond expectations in managing the unparalleled challenges we are experiencing daily. What we do now and how we manage our response will determine how Ireland will lead in the near term and how we can pave the way for future progress.

It should be said that we’re no strangers to pulling out all the stops to mitigate a crisis in the industry. Ireland’s ‘patent cliff’, where a number of blockbuster drugs with tens of billions in global annual sales went off patent between 2011 and 2016, was an existential threat to our pharma industry. Despite this, the pharma industry in Ireland was boosted by a stream of significant new investments, particularly in the biopharmaceutical space, that allowed Ireland to reposition itself and move further up the value chain.

Like the patent cliff, the impact of Covid-19 will not be temporary. Thankfully though, we have a strong reputation as a thriving hub for pharma and life sciences manufacturing and Ireland has the tools to face this crisis with confidence. Normally resistant to global economic turbulence, the life sciences sector in Ireland has proven itself to be a successful linchpin to our economy over the last few decades. As such, Irish manufacturing sites of multinational pharmaceutical companies regularly earn themselves clean bills of health from global regulators, particularly when it comes to regulatory compliance for manufacturing complex, critical products.

‘Overcoming this crisis will likely require collective capabilities and collaboration across the biopharma value chain’

While there are signs in other jurisdictions that the sum and magnitude of supply chain disruptions could impact the ability to get some treatments to patients, manufacturing sites in Ireland have so far achieved similar levels of safety and output during the pandemic as they had before.

To protect their people, organisations have implemented travel bans, restricted who they let into their offices, and re-examined how their workplaces operate and how people work. Irish sites have been ahead of the curve both in enabling their office employees to work remotely through digital collaboration, and with the early adoption of digitising manufacturing and a lean approach – capabilities that are very useful in a context where social distancing must be maintained.

However, while the Irish life sciences sector appears to be so far unscathed by the harshest impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, we should expect continued discussion and focus among global political forces as governments assess their dependence on global supply chains for pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

Overcoming this crisis will likely require collective capabilities and collaboration across the biopharma value chain; we are not out of the woods yet. Even companies with the best-laid plans – those with well-structured and managed supply chains – can see them overturned during such uncertain times.

So, how can the Irish life sciences industry seize this time to strengthen its operations and emerge stronger and more resilient?

Prepare for the worst

End-to-end supply chain visibility and scenario planning will be essential as material shortages and logistical challenges grow during the pandemic. Covid-19 is disrupting the supply and flow of raw materials, intermediates and products as a result of border closings, export restrictions and air-freight capacity reduction.

On the demand side, there are unprecedented surges for Covid-19-related therapies and diagnostics, creating challenges to supply and a need to ramp up manufacturing. To respond with confidence and insight, biopharma supply chain and operations leaders need to be equipped with near real-time data and simulation capability. It is important to work across functional silos, and in collaboration with suppliers, wholesalers and distributors, in order to gain end-to-end supply chain visibility and be able to perform comprehensive scenario modelling.

Stabilise and sustain

Supply chain and operations leaders are dealing with daily disruptions on multiple fronts. Given the 24/7 nature of biopharma manufacturing, production must continue with a reduced workforce and operational challenges.

Hundreds of thousands of workers around the globe, from operators, engineers, scientists and lab technicians to warehouse and maintenance workers, are essential to ensure business continuity and ultimately the production and release of drugs. Compounded by logistics and distribution disruptions, the ability to address these multi-faceted risks is critical to stabilising and sustaining operations.

Supply chain leaders should actively monitor risk events to anticipate and make timely decisions such as border closures, new regulations and distribution bottlenecks. The strategic positioning of inventory must be high on the agenda, as well as the assessment of alternate distribution channels to overcome geopolitical risks and any ongoing logistical challenges.

Be prepared to pivot

Biopharma must make sense of volatile and shifting demand and prepare to ramp up with agility to address urgent patient needs. Supply chain leaders need to prioritise manufacturing capacity to meet demand surges for relevant treatments for Covid-19 such as antivirals, immunosuppressants, antibiotics, sedatives, anti-infectives and diagnostic reagents.

Rebalancing teams to address shifting demand patterns and the ramping up of clinical trials in manufacturing, distribution centre operations and fulfilment will help to prioritise and optimise operations.

Build resilience now for a better future

Irish manufacturers have been successful in the recent past at getting involved in the supply of new therapies and manufacturing platforms emerging from R&D. This strategy will be even more important as the pace of R&D accelerates and new and more complex treatments emerge from R&D faster than ever before.

There is a wide variety of vaccines in development for Covid-19 and these vary widely in their composition and manufacturing platform. Existing expertise in supplying the products of today may be undercut by failure to prepare for the products and manufacturing platforms of tomorrow.

United by a common mission to compress the typical 10 to 15-year timeframe to bring a new vaccine and/or therapy to market, the biopharma industry, governments and academia are galvanised as never before. Daily headlines report partnerships and ventures across industry, academia, non-profits, government organisations and regulatory bodies.

As we outmanoeuvre uncertainty by navigating to the ‘never normal’, the Irish biopharma sector has a unique opportunity to reimagine the supply chain and the collaborative ecosystem with a redoubled focus on agility, innovation, R&D, resilience, social responsibility and a human-centric approach to the workforce of the future. We are seeing exceptional speed toward adoption of new technology within plant and production environments, and now is the time to keep accelerating these ideas that have been on the digital plan.

The human impact of Covid-19 is immense and the industry must be flexible and utilise new approaches and technologies to be ready for constant and rapid change. But just as it survived the patent cliff almost a decade ago, Ireland’s agile and resilient life sciences sector will not be felled by the coronavirus.

Barry Heavey is managing director of life sciences at Accenture Ireland