While there are many biotechnology industry organizations worldwide, the most prominent one is called the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO). In addition to working with numerous stakeholders, including the government, to promote industry growth and innovation, education, and industry analytics, it runs the world’s largest conference series, also called BIO. These conferences transpire in many different US cities, as well as around the world; however, as with many other events, this year’s conference will be going digital. This will be one of the largest online conference experiments ever, as the highlight of the meeting is partnering. 

Despite popular belief, the biotechnology and biopharmaceutical industry suffered immense losses as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As many hospitals have surpassed maximum capacity, clinical trials that cost billions of dollars had to be paused or even stopped. We suspect that the data quality in these studies will also be affected. We also saw major disruptions on the preclinical side, as many labs not working on COVID-19 were forced to close. 

However, some good has come out of this situation. Major inefficiencies in the biopharmaceutical industry are now being recognized due to the global failure in quickly recognizing the initial outbreak, producing a cure, creating a vaccine, or even repurposing an existing treatment. As the COVID-19 pandemic subsides and countries engage in finger pointing, it is important to reflect on how it began, and learn lessons to ensure that it does not happen again. 

Dr. Jeremy Levin, the chairman of BIO, managed to bring together over 40 key opinion leaders (KOLs) in the biopharmaceutical industry to write a book titled “Biotechnology In the Time of COVID-19”. It is probably the first major attempt to codify what transpired in the biotechnology industry during the pandemic and includes historical perspectives, insider news, investor thoughts, and forecasts. The list of KOLs includes the most famous industry analysts, celebrity investors, biotechnology, and pharma executives, with some of the busiest calendars, who do not usually respond to people they do not know. But when Dr. Levin called, everyone responded. And for good reason. This book will serve as a curated collection of guidelines for future pandemics. 

As previously mentioned, BIO is going digital this year and will take place 8-12th of June worldwide. His book has already gone live on Amazon and will be free for download during BIO! After the conference is over, it will go back to $9.99 at Amazon and $19.99 at Audible, so do not miss your chance to download it for free during BIO. 

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To provide you with a gist of the book and a few more reasons to join BIO this year, I asked Dr. Levin a few provocative questions. 

Dr. Jeremy Levin, Chairman of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)

Dr. Jeremy Levin, Chairman of the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)

Dr. Jeremy Levin for Rosetta Books with permission to use with the Biotechnology in the Time of COVID-19 book

Dr. Levin, you probably remember January 13th and the 38th J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, when tens of thousands of biotechnology experts convened to make deals. At that time we already saw the reports from China, who published the SARS-CoV-2 genome. What was the industry’s initial reaction during this time? 

Alex, right at THAT time, few in the industry understood the magnitude of what we were seeing in China. No alarms were being raised to the public by the government in the USA. One or two biotechnology company CEOs – for example John Oyler at Beigene were asking what our sense was in the USA. Others like Dan O’Day at Gilead are offering medicines to China. But our awareness in general was very low.

With all the data coming from China and the WHO, many government leaders and biotechnology executives did not really realize the threat of a global pandemic. Why do you think that happened? 

We have traditionally had a very strong belief in the impartiality, scientific messages and integrity of key government agencies including particularly the CDC, which includes in its leadership the highly respected and deeply ethical individual, Dr. Fauci. We have witnessed their outstanding behaviors repeatedly in the past. We have always trusted in their integrity. On this occasion while we now know they were clearly very concerned, their concerns was not transmitted to the public or the industry. Additionally the media was focused elsewhere, and where it was discussed it was more in the context of the political impact of trade and how China was handling it. Then as it came to the the shores of the USA it was described as a political issue and not a medical issue by key media outlets. This greatly handicapped our ability to respond effectively as it influenced how many key agencies and policy makers handled the unfolding catastrophe. 

Do you think we learned our lesson and will be ready for the next pandemic? 

Time will tell. It’s clear that many nations such as Korea, New Zealand, Australia and others responded effectively. In the USA the situation is much more complex. Those like the medical profession, the biotechnology and the pharma leaders and their companies have learned and will be ready for the next pandemic. The real question is will the federal government have taken concrete steps to enable science, medicine and tangible public health steps ( based on facts) take the leading role they need to. 

Can you tell us a little bit about your book and why it is important? 

The book tells the story of how an industry pivoted to face the COVID-19 pandemic. From zero to 100 in just a month. It describes the individual reaction of the leaders of the industry in their own, human, manner. It offers a glimpse into the opening chapter of the race to build the tools, diagnostics, medicines and vaccines to combat the virus. It shows the vulnerability, strength and determination of these individuals and provides a clear view of their motivations. The book describes how driven by their motivation to fight the virus and save lives, to stand beside the patients, their families and the medical profession, they leapt into the fray. It’s important because the book shows how the industry cares and sees its role in society – a strategic industrial asset willing to fight and conquer diseases on behalf of all individuals and our society.

We see major tensions among national governments and tendencies towards deglobalization at a time when we need to increase collaboration and accelerate research. How is this going to affect the biotechnology industry? 

It’s critical for everyone to understand that viruses know no borders. Without international cooperation, collaboration and coordinated response we will suffer again. The biotechnology industry will play its part. But we need others to do the same including constructive trade agreements, a focus on insuring supply chain integrity, ability of companies to bring key talent to staff our labs from around the world and to focus on the many integral threads that have been woven to allow countries to work together in common purpose. Informed by this crisis we will do our best to help educate government about the key elements needed for healthy and balanced trade agreements, the flow of capital, goods and talent across borders. 

With many cases of SARS-CoV-2 worldwide, including in countries like Iran, Syria, and North Korea, do you expect any possible modifications of the virus with malicious intent? 

States who support, nurture and defend terrorism and terrorists ( and particularly those you mentioned) will no doubt take note of this event. A virus crippled the global economy. Since the signing in 1973 of the accords banning biological weapons several nations have clearly continued to develop and may hold such weapons. Today they have been given a demonstration of their power. I cannot but expect some nations to take the action you describe, making the efforts of biotechnology even more important as it learns to destroy the virus. And equally important that we bolster and improve the capabilities of national agencies such as the CDC and international agencies including WHO, to be better prepared. At the same time we need to enhance our abilities to detect, deter and destroy any that seek to weaponize this or other viruses. The human race’s survival depends on this. The next pandemic may be far worse if we do not learn from this one and prepare.

Biotechnology in the Time of COVID-19 by Dr. Jeremy Levin

Biotechnology in the Time of COVID-19 by Dr. Jeremy Levin

Rosetta Books with permission to use by the chapter contributors

The book titled “Biotechnology In the Time of COVID-19” by Dr. Jeremy Levin is now live on Amazon and is free to download during the global BIO Digital conference.