This year has been a truly global annus horribulus. We were all blindsided by a major pandemic that has killed around 1 million and infected tens of millions more.
The outbreak that started in a market in Wuhan, China, quickly, quietly and ruthlessly spread: From Asia, to Australasia, to Europe and to the Americas. Our only recourse was no different from the last major pandemic 102 years ago: To run and hide.
But unlike in 1918, we have better technology, science and understanding. The speed of which the life science industry has moved is breathtaking. We mapped the genome of this virus in late 2019; six months later there are several phase 3 vaccine trials recruiting collectively nearly 100,000 patients for distinctly different immunization approaches, one of which has never been used before.
A few months after the mapping of the virus, we had the first antibodies; a short few months after that, Eli Lilly and partner AbCellera, one of our Fierce 15 winners this year, are in late-stage trials for a drug that could both treat and prevent COVID-19.
But while infectious disease consumes our minds and the current budgets of the world, cancer will still develop and kill; genetic abnormalities will create rare diseases with no treatment; millions will still die from influenza.
COVID-19 may have shown the world how quickly trials can get up and running, data collated and published, and results disseminated. But as several of our winning Fierce 15 CEOs told FierceBiotech this summer, if we can do this for COVID-19, why can’t we do it for cancer, autoimmune diseases and rare disorders?
But this also shows up our lack of foresight. We knew a pandemic was coming—perhaps not this specific one, but the fact that a member of the coronavirus family jumped from animal to human is no big surprise to any infectious disease expert. If we had taken heed of the first SARS virus in 2003, which was less infectious but more deadly than SARS-CoV-02, we might have already had a working arsenal of treatments on our hands.
All our winning CEOs working on COVID warn that this time, we must learn from our mistakes, and plan for the inevitable next pandemic today, and not leave it until tomorrow.
The hit from COVID has caused a major economic downturn, if not global recession. The pressure on healthcare payors and governments with taxpayer-funded systems will be heavier than ever before. One of our winners, EQRx, is already prepping a solution here, driving down sky-high prescription drug prices by developing cheaper equivalent drugs for cancer and other big disease areas. The time of exorbitant prices will surely now have to come to an end.
This year, we’ve chosen from a diverse range of those fighting COVID, as well as those fighting longer term plagues against our biology.
Check out our 15 winning biotechs below. — Ben Adams