The biopharmaceutical industry has shared lessons learned for future pandemic preparedness, building on its experience of successfully developing and manufacturing vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics to go head-to-head with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19).
Such lessons are crucial as COVID-19 evolves into more infectious variants, and as other diseases like monkeypox continue to threaten the world with their potential spread.
The report by the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) titled Applying Lessons Learned from Covid-19 to Create a Healthier, Safer, More Equitable World outlined important actions to counter a pandemic or emerging health threats.
Central to these lessons are urgent pathogen and surveillance sharing, an enabling innovation ecosystem, regulatory flexibility, partnerships for health equity, strengthening health systems, and vaccine confidence, said the IFPMA.
Specifically, health security starts with pathogen surveillance and sharing. While increased investments in improved and expanded pathogen and disease surveillance are needed, immediate access to pathogens and their genetic information will be equally important.
Another lesson is the value of partnerships to accelerate research and development and manufacturing. Effective voluntary partnerships spanning the globe accelerated research and development (R&D) and manufacturing for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments. More than 330 partnerships — public-private, private-private, private-academic, and others — bolstered manufacturing capacity, facilitated technology and knowledge transfer, and drove historically rapid research and development. As a result, vaccine administration increased from zero doses in 2020 to more than 12 billion doses in 2022.
There is also a need for advance market commitments to support manufacturing scale-up for global pandemic response. Advance market commitments for COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics allowed for vital supplemental investments in production capacity and voluntary technology transfer.
Another lesson is the role of innovation in pandemic preparedness and response. Years of investment in R&D — even in the face of costly failures — laid the groundwork for shortened development timelines for the mRNA and viral vector vaccines now in use against SARS-CoV-2. The development of the first vaccine approved for human use took just about a year, while the first batches of vaccines from research-based pharmaceutical companies came in early 2021.
Another lesson is that the lack of multiple, globally sourced components delayed pharmaceutical distribution throughout the pandemic. Shortages of raw materials and intermediate products made worse by trade restrictions and competition for and among vendors resulted in inefficient allocation of available supply, leaving most developers less capable of rapidly testing, manufacturing, and delivering COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics.
For low-income countries, there must also be an established procurement system. The IFPMA noted that the COVAX facility was not sufficiently funded or organized quickly enough to secure advance purchase agreements for doses on a par with high-income country purchasers.
Meanwhile, regulatory flexibility and convergence help ensure safety and speed of access. COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics were developed in record time due to the extraordinary degree of collaboration between industry and national and regional regulatory authorities. Collaborative consultations saved lives by managing speed, efficacy, and safety.
Moreover, vaccine nationalism imperils everyone because no one is safe until everyone is. Policies like export restrictions and vaccine hoarding, regardless of global public health need, have intensified and likely prolonged the COVID-19 pandemic.
There is also a need to strengthen delivery infrastructure. Everyone has a collective responsibility to ensure equitable access to vaccines and treatment, and to build the necessary infrastructure supporting countries’ ability to deliver needed vaccines and medicines ahead of the next one.
Finally, vaccine confidence is critical for success. Ending the pandemic demands that public confidence in COVID-19 vaccines and the systems that deliver them be sustained. Vaccines won’t work if people won’t take them. Concerted, cross-sector action to build public trust is critical now and will need to be maintained long after the pandemic has ended.
The IFPMA’s “lessons learned” is a reminder that it is crucial to build on the successes, and improve where lapses were found in pandemic preparedness and response. These lessons must be remembered so that the fight against this current pandemic (or future health emergencies) does not go back to square one.
Teodoro B. Padilla is the executive director of Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), which represents the biopharmaceutical medicines and vaccines industry in the country. Its members are at the forefront of research and development efforts for COVID-19 and other diseases that affect Filipinos.