Picture: EuropaBio

Biotechnology in a post-COVID world – make it so

It has been a roller coaster ride for biotechnology since Covid-19 became the virus du jour in early 2020. In a locked-down world with the ongoing human and economic impact, biotechnology has put on its Avengers trousers and roared into action. Scientists and companies worldwide have advanced novel vaccine development (a rich pipeline of Phase II/III drug candidates) at unprecedented speed, with funders, governments and regulators also breaking records in traditionally very conservative fields.

And biotechnology is not just a pretty face, it is a significant economic contributor. EuropaBio’s recent report ‘The Economic Footprint of the Biotechnology Industry in Europe’ (see p. 10) showed that the biotech industry more than earns its keep and can be clearly positioned at the centre of the EU Industrial Strategy.

What does this mean for biotechnology in the long term? The Covid response has broken boundaries and set precedents that we know cannot become the norm for the future, however, it provides lessons and ambitions for biotechnology that enables fast and bigger delivery, whether responding to an urgent crisis like Covid-19 or a world-changing threat like climate change.

Money: Biotech is not cheap, and it is also high-risk – public funders need to be bold and support early-stage R&D for decades often not knowing where it will lead. For Covid, the depth of knowledge enabled new vaccines when we needed them. Europe also needs to enable local private investment at a scale that enables technology delivery, rather than creating a tasty snack for a non-European owner after public money has done its job.

Partnerships: A major feature of the Covid-19 experience has been the partnerships that have delivered solutions. Not only the headline partnerships around the vaccines with SMEs, pharma and universities but the immense mobilisation of capabilities across sectors to enable vaccine delivery to patients. Expanding public-private partnerships is the obvious route to take. The EU is ideally placed to drive this and why not act globally? Climate change and pandemics are no respecter of borders.

Politics and regulation: The core instruments of policy, IP and regulation need to be embedded within collaborative platforms so that super-highways to market are a natural extension to the science. Not only does this accelerate the right collaborative science to its destination, it de-risks investment at the scale needed to fuel the journey.

Biotechnology faces a bright future after the darkness of Covid. As a key enabling technology, it has confirmed its place at the heart of Europe’s Industrial Strategy.

Claire Skentelbery, ph.d., a biochemist by training, has worked in the development of scientific associations for 20 years. She started her career within the UK Cambridge biotech cluster and was a co-founder of the Council of European Bio-Regions. In Brussels from 2009, she was also SG for the European Biotechnology Network, working across sectors, organisations and countries as part of the EBN mission to facilitate partnerships. Claire became DG of the globally-focused Nanotechnology Industries Association until November 2020 when she joined EuropaBio as Director General.

This text was originally published in the European Biotechnology Magazine Spring 2021.